design ideas pragmatic historian preservation product packaging

Can Desiccant Packets Be Reused?

In the further annals of product packaging, I’ve been flummoxed by another item that isn’t easily recyclable: Desiccant packets.

These are the little silica packets found in vitamins and other supplements, in shoeboxes, and in any product that needs to stay dry within its packaging.

Four desiccant packets in different sizes. One is a generic silica gel packet, one is a PillowPak by Desiccare, Inc., one is an Ageless Oxygen Absorber, and one is by Performance Dry. August 2021.
Four desiccant packets in different sizes. One is a generic silica gel packet, one is a PillowPak by Desiccare, Inc., one is an Ageless Oxygen Absorber, and one is by Performance Dry. August 2021.

I’m sure I’ve thrown away hundreds of these in my lifetime. I don’t remember when they became common within product packaging, but they seem to be in loads of stuff now.

They’re certainly useful for when they are needed, but what do we do about them when we’re done with them? There isn’t a recycling program for desiccant packets.

According EDCO Supply Corporation, desiccant packets, which contain either silica gel or bentonite clay, are reusable. [https://www.edcosupply.com/frequently-asked-questions-about-desiccant-packs/]

Huh, well, that’s interesting. Perhaps I need to collect these in one of the reusable plastic containers we have kicking around the house and use them wherever I need to keep the contents of a box dry.

They’d be especially useful in the plastic tubs in which I store family photos and information.

Plastic tubs are very convenient for storing items of all types, however they can generate a microclimate in the box if moisture gets trapped inside and the tub is exposed to different temperatures (for example, if the tub is stored in an unheated garage). This can potentially damage the items inside. It’s why we tend to avoid plastic tubs for museum storage and use cardboard boxes instead. The breathability of cardboard allows moisture to escape.

This makes me wonder if desiccant packets might be good for museum storage. Quick! To the Googles!

The top two results from a search for “desiccant packets museum storage” returned a page from Gaylord Brothers, a museum storage supplier, for “Archival Humidity Control, Silica Gel, Desiccant Containers” [https://www.gaylord.com/c/Humidity-Control-0] and a September 1999 Conserve O Gram from the National Park Service** on “Using Silica Gel in Microenvironments” [https://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/conserveogram/01-08.pdf].

This goes to show a few things:

  1. You can work in a museum for many, many years and still learn something new. (I learn something new every day, in fact.)
  2. Silica gel desiccant packets are good for controlling museum microclimates.
  3. I should have been saving these desiccant packets all along for our museum. Dang! [Shakes head with major regret]

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be too hasty with my regret.

In reading the Conserve O Gram more closely, there are specific conditions that must be met to use silica gel desiccant packets in a museum environment. For one, the cabinet or box you are using for storage needs to be well-sealed so the desiccant can keep the microclimate under control. You also have to use the appropriate quantity of gel for the space, which is typically a larger amount than the small desiccant packets from vitamin bottles. Also, the gel will need to be reconditioned periodically as it absorbs moisture, which  means frequently checking the relative humidity of the container. Before using silica gel as a desiccant, it has to be pre-conditioned, which the Conserve O Gram indicates is quite a process.

It’s not as simple as throwing a few pre-manufactured desiccant packets into a box, though it can’t hurt to use a few of them in small boxes of items at home.

The good news is there is no need to throw desiccant packets away. They can be diverted from landfills and reused, though you may accumulate more than you need over the years. Certainly we could come up with a means of redistributing extra desiccant packets to someone else who needs them?


** The National Park Service has been producing Conserve O Grams on important technical topics for museums for decades. To see a list, visit their Conserve O Grams page [https://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/conserveogram/cons_toc.html].