If you have been doing any online shopping during lockdown, you are likely to have accumulated quite the stash of silica gel sachets. After all, they are pretty much ubiquitous in packaged goods, whether it be new shoes, electronics or medications and supplements. After several years, I have quite the collection and have never really been sure of the best thing to do with them. So, I decided to investigate.
Silica gel is used as a desiccant or drying agent, and it works by absorbing moisture. Silica gel has been a favoured desiccant because it can absorb approximately 40 per cent of its weight in water. Chemically, silica gel is inert. If it finds its way to landfill, which I would guess is very common, it isn't going to create chemical havoc. If it finds its way into a human, the silica gel isn’t going to cause toxicity or poisoning. The bigger risk is choking, hence the 'do not eat' warnings on packets.
The primary environmental issue with the silica gel is the manufacture of it — it is chemical, water and energy-hungry and also produces wastewater. Blue silica gel is more concerning still as the colour typically comes from the addition of cobalt chloride, a substance which is problematic and damaging to the body and environment if it breaks free of its packaging. These side-effects have led to blue silica being banned in the European Union.
In landfill, the bigger issue with the sachets is the sheer quantity and the fact that the packaging is made from or lined with plastic to hold in the moisture.
So what should we do with them? We can't really avoid them because it’s unlikely we can just stop buying things that come with silica sachets — especially in the case of medicines — and the do serve a purpose. But they might help add that little bit of encouragement needed to stop and think before we press the 'buy now' button.
Really, the best option we have as shoppers is to encourage retailers to switch to a more natural desiccant. One alternative option is bentonite clay, which is far less resource intensive and doesn’t require plastic packaging or lining.
And, if you can't avoid them, don't send them to landfill. There are so many uses for these water-sucking sachets. Some good ideas I've come across are:
Store them with your photos and photo albums to avoid damage.
Keeping a jar of them in your wardrobe to avoid mould developing on shoes and clothes.
Scatter them in your pantry to help extend the life of your packaged foods.
Stashing them in your gym bag to keep it daisy fresh.
Or if you are a gardener, keep them with your seeds to prevent rot.
The best part? Silica sachets can be reused indefinitely. Silica gel will transition from an active to an inactive state as it absorbs water, but reactivating it is as simple as heating the sachets slowly in your oven at 105 to 110 degrees Celsius for up to three hours. The moisture in the desiccant packets will be drawn out by the heat in the oven, reactivating the drying agent. Allow them to cool before storing them in an airtight container until you're ready to use them again.
This is another story of reuse over dispose and the upside is that by saving these from landfill, you will likely improve the lifespan of other things you own.
Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.