Orbeez have been one of the latest crazes in kids’ toys during the past few years.
Watching them grow when exposed to water and shrink as water escapes from them has brought a sense of wonder to many children as they wonder how they work.
Besides the fascination that they bring to kids, some people even use Orbeez and other water beads in the garden or in vases to water their plants or cut flowers.
But are these gel beads bad for the environment?
Yes, Orbeez are bad for the environment mostly due to what they’re made of.
In this article, we’ll explore what Orbeez are made of as well as other aspects of them to determine if they are eco-friendly.
1. What Are Orbeez Made Of?
Orbeez are made of what is known as a superabsorbent polymer.
So what exactly is a superabsorbent polymer?
Essentially, a superabsorbent polymer is a polymer that can absorb large amounts of water and retain that water without bursting.
The dry form of a superabsorbent polymer is known as slush powder. Slush powder is usually made up of a polymer called polyacrylamide.
Polyacrylamide is essentially a type of plastic that has the unique property of being able to absorb water, turning into a gel once water is absorbed.
Once the polyacrylamide beads absorb water, the beads turn into something called hydrogel.
Hydrogels are substances that swell and retain water without dissolving in the water.
Over time, the water will be released from the hydrogel and the Orbeez will shrink back to their normal size as they dry out.
2. What Are Orbeez Used For?
The brand name Orbeez is primarily a kids’ toy that comes in various colors and even some playsets.
However, Orbeez or gel beads have other practical uses as well. For example, they are used in baby diapers to absorb liquids and help keep them dry.
Some people place Orbeez in flower vases to help keep their flowers hydrated, while others use them in the garden or in potted plants to help keep those plants hydrated also.
In some cases, large amounts of these beads can even be used to control floods in some areas.
3. Are Orbeez Eco-Friendly?
Since Orbeez are technically made from a plastic polymer, they aren’t exactly eco-friendly.
Plastics come from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, and collecting crude oil puts the environment at risk for harm including habitat loss, oil spills, and air pollution through greenhouse gas emissions.
Plus, once the crude oil is collected, it has to undergo heavy processing in order to turn it into usable plastic.
The oil has to be refined using chemicals and then combined with other chemicals, but the chemicals and processes that are used depend on the type of plastic being made.
Regardless of the type of plastic being made, polyacrylamide or not, a lot of energy has to be used which comes from burning fossil fuels – these are also non-renewable resources and the top contributor to global warming.
And, chemical runoff from factories can cause soil and water pollution mainly if the chemicals and chemical waste aren’t disposed of properly.
4. Are Orbeez Biodegradable?
Orbeez and other hydrogel beads are classified as not readily biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean they won’t break down over time.
They will degrade and will do so much faster than other plastics – in as little as 2-5 years.
However, this isn’t necessarily a good thing, nor does it mean that Orbeez are good for the environment.
You see, when the polyacrylamide polymer that is used to make Orbeez breaks down, it degrades to form acrylamide.
Acrylamide is a neurotoxin as well as a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent), but studies have shown that it poses more cancer risk to animals whereas humans are more affected neurologically.
Laboratory tests showed that the reason for this is that humans and animals metabolized acrylamide differently.
Acrylamide can pass through the skin but it can also be inhaled. When used in the garden, Orbeez and other hydrogel beads put animals particularly at risk.
Since acrylamide is also water-soluble, it can also enter watersheds after the beads break down, causing contamination that way as well.
5. Are Orbeez Compostable?
Even though Orbeez will degrade within about 5 years, it is not a good idea to compost them.
It’s worth noting that some people may use Orbeez to retain moisture in their compost bin, but this isn’t a good idea either since they will break down over time.
Due to the reason mentioned above in the previous section, you don’t want to contaminate your compost with toxic acrylamides.
Depending on what you use the compost for, these acrylamides could find their way into your food sources such as fruits and vegetables that you grew yourself.
6. Are Orbeez Sustainable?
Since Orbeez are essentially made from plastic, they are not sustainable.
Despite the fact that they can be used over and over again before they break down, remember that the materials used to create them are non-renewable.
Plus, they don’t degrade in a way that is good for the environment since they release toxic acrylamides when they break down.
7. Are Orbeez Recyclable?
Orbeez are not recyclable. This is mostly due to the fact that they are made of superabsorbent polymer plastic, which is not a recyclable material.
Even assuming that they were made from recyclable materials, Orbeez would be hard to recycle due to their small size.
8. Are Orbeez Reusable?
The one eco-friendly aspect of Orbeez are that they are reusable, provided that they don’t start to break down in the environment.
When used in the garden, they can be filled with water over and over again until they break down in 2-5 years.
If you use them indoors in vases where they aren’t exposed to environmental elements, they will last a lot longer.
It’s also much safer to use Orbeez in this aspect because they won’t break down into acrylamides as readily.
9. Are Orbeez Bad for Plants?
Orbeez aren’t necessarily bad for plants and they have been used by gardeners and horticulturists for years.
They’re actually a very practical way to keep your plants hydrated.
However, having learned that they will break down over time and release toxic acrylamides into the environment when used in the garden may make you change your mind about using them if you want to be more eco-friendly.
Remember that these water beads could pose a risk to wildlife that inhabits your yard and garden if they come into contact with these acrylamides over time as the beads break down.
How to Dispose of Orbeez Properly
Since they are not recyclable, the only way to dispose of Orbeez is to throw them away with the regular trash.
This may not be the most ideal method since they’ll go to a landfill, but with plastic materials that aren’t recyclable, the only choices you really have are to throw them away or reuse them.
It can be risky for the environment to reuse them depending on how they’re reused.
You can use them in the garden if you choose, but they will start to break down eventually and could harm the environment.
3 Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Orbeez
If after reading this, you’re iffy on using Orbeez to help retain moisture in your garden and plants, here are some ways to do so without putting potentially hazardous chemicals into the environment.
Mulch is one of the most eco-friendly ways to help retain moisture in the garden.
It has long been used to cover the ground around plants to help reduce water evaporation and prevent runoff, as well as help regulate the soil temperature.
You can use store-bought mulch or organic materials that you find around your yard such as pine straw or leaves. You can even shred old newspapers and use that as mulch instead.
Keep in mind that mulch will break down over time so you will have to replace it every couple of years.
But, it will break down in an eco-friendly way without putting chemicals into the environment.
2. Use Soil Additives
Organic soil additives such as coir, peat moss, compost, or even leaves can all be mixed in with the soil around your plants to help the soil retain more moisture.
These materials can also improve overall soil health as they break down and add nutrients to the soil.
3. Drip Irrigation
Drip irrigation slowly waters your plants to prevent less water from running off the soil surface.
It is 90% efficient and allows plants to use more water, which helps to conserve water in the process.
You can also hook the drip irrigation system up to a timer so that it only waters your plants at specific intervals so that they stay hydrated.
Whether you’re using them in the garden or your kids like to play with them, there’s no doubt that Orbeez can be practical or fun.
However, they aren’t eco-friendly due to being made of plastic polymers and the fact that they can release toxins into the environment when they break down.
If you’re using them in your garden to help your plants retain more water, there are more eco-friendly methods that you can use instead, such as mulch, soil additives, and drip irrigation.
And in case you’re looking for a more eco-friendly toy for your kids, make sure you don’t choose balloons instead (here’s why not).