We find them everywhere, popping out of all sorts of packaging, lurking like an ugly bug in vitamin bottles and new shoes. Working freight at my store, I touch dozens of silica packets each day and have often wondered what I can do to recycle them. Couldn't we collect them and send them off to a manufacturer for reuse?
Silica gel is a desiccant, a substance that absorbs moisture. Despite its misleading name, the silicate is actually a very porous mineral with a natural attraction to water molecules. Manufacturers utilize the gel to keep goods from spoiling, molding or degrading due to humidity. Most silica found in our food and household purchases looks like tapioca beads and is benign unless combined with certain chemicals. The gel itself is nontoxic, but sometimes a moisture indicator called cobalt chloride is added; it's a known toxin that turns pink when hydrated and is otherwise blue in its dry form. These days, you can find new indicators (usually green) that don't use this toxic ingredient. However, to be safe, use the packets with no added chemicals around the food-related suggestions below and save the indicator-added packets for other uses.
Although silica gel has massive potential for reuse, I haven't had any luck finding a recycler. But I did discover several great suggestions for using these packs around the house and keeping them from the landfill just a wee bit longer.
- Protect personal papers and important documents by putting some gel packs in a baggie wherever these are stored.
- Keep with photos to spare them from humidity. Tuck a small envelope in the back of the frame — a method you can use to protect even the frames hanging on your walls.
- Store in camera bags and with film. Silica gel will absorb moisture to keep your lens from fogging or streaking, especially after you've been snapping photos in cold or wet conditions.
- Leave a couple packs in your tool box to prevent rusting.
- Use them to speed up the process of drying flowers.
- Place with seeds in storage to thwart molding.
- Toss some into your spice cabinet or tape some packets to the inside of the cabinet. If you know you
- Stash some in window sills to banish condensation.
- Dry out electronic items such as cellphones and iPods. Remember after the device has gotten wet, do not turn it back on! Pull out the battery and memory card and put the device in a container filled with several packs. Leave it in there at least overnight.
- Put some packs in your ammo cans and gun cases/safes to keep them dry.
- Slow silver tarnishing by using the gel in jewelry boxes and with your silverware.
- Add to items in storage, such as cars or anything prone to mildew. Popular Mechanics offers a good suggestion for use in the engines of sitting vehicles.
- Tired of buying big bags of pet food only to have it get soggy? Store your kibble in a bin and tape some silica packs to the bottom of the lid.
- Cut open the packs and saturate the beads with essential oils to create potpourri.
- Use in luggage while traveling.
- Tuck some in your pockets. Hide them in your closet in leather goods such as coats and shoes, and even handbags, to help your belongings survive life in storage.
- Gather your razor blades and keep in a container with several silica packs to stave off oxidation.
- Video tape collections will last much longer with these to help keep them dry.
- Cat litter is now made with silica. With its fantastic absorption qualities, this litter requires fewer changes and sends less mess to the landfill.
And my personal favorite:
- Squirrel some away in your car, especially on your dashboard. This will help maintain a clear windshield and leave it less foggy during times of high humidity.
While these packets are annoying and seem like a waste of resources, they can extend the life of many items. Another reason someone needs to be collecting them to recycle: they can be reactivated repeatedly. To recharge, you just need to bake the saturated beads on a cookie sheet, as detailed on ehow.com.
Cy Tottleben originally wrote this story for MNN State Reports and it has since been moved over to MNN.com.