How To Move Long Distance Without Plastic
When I left my home in California last month to care for my dad in Maryland, I struggled to figure out how to do it plastic-free. Moving across the country can involve a lot of disposable plastic if you’re not careful: plastic bubble wrap inside your boxes, plastic tape to close the boxes, and plastic stretch wrap around everything. Apparently, stretch wrap is now a moving company’s best friend. In fact, I had the following phone conversation with one of the many moving company reps I spoke to:
Me: I don’t want my items covered in plastic wrap. Can you just use reusable moving blankets?
Rep: We do use blankets. But we have to use plastic wrap over the blankets to protect your furniture. No reputable company would move your possessions without plastic wrap.
Me: How did they do it in the old days?
Rep: If they were a good company, they used plastic wrap.
Me: I mean, in the days before plastic stretch wrap.
Rep: Good moving companies have always used stretch wrap.
Me: You do realize there was a time before plastic was invented, right?
Rep: Maybe they didn’t have moving companies back then.
Oy. So, okay, I wasn’t able to avoid plastic wrap completely. But I did minimize it as much as possible. Here’s what I did, as well as a few things I would have done if I’d had more time.
Minimize the Amount of Stuff to Move
Since my year of minimizing and buying nothing new, I had already culled a lot of my possessions. Years ago I’d sold most of my CDs and DVDs. I’d reduced my reading library to one bookcase. Okay, one double-wide bookcase, but still… I’d donated clothes and dishes and an entire cabinet of stemware (because when you are clumsy and have cats, you’re just begging for red wine accidents.) But even after that, I still had a lot of stuff to move.
I seriously considered selling or giving away everything I owned and completely starting over. People do it. People start downsizing and find they can’t stop. People unburden themselves of all their possessions and feel free afterwards. But for me, when it came down to it, I couldn’t do it. This move was already fraught with emotion around family and caretaking. I couldn’t handle the additional weight of lightening my load. So I hired my friend’s packing company to pack it all up.
Once you’ve decided what stuff you’re going to keep, you have to figure out how to get it from Point A to Point B. When I first moved to California in 1989, my stuff fit into eight big boxes that I shipped via UPS. The only furniture I brought with me was a two-drawer wooden filing cabinet that fit in one of those boxes and that I still have. Returning to Maryland in 2017, my stuff has expanded to include a queen-sized bed and mattress (a super expensive eco-friendly, all-natural, plastic-free mattress, BTW, which I could not easily replace), a double-wide bookcase, several more wooden filing cabinets, a few other pieces of furniture, and about 30 boxes worth of clothes, books, memorabilia, and housewares. By moving company standards, it was a small load. Still, I was going to need a truck and someone to drive that truck.
Option A: Rent a Truck. Several people suggested I rent a moving truck, pack it, and drive my stuff across the country. That would have given me complete control over how my items were packed. It also felt scary and dangerous (since I would be doing the driving), and I didn’t have that kind of time anyway. I needed to get myself to Maryland as soon as possible, even if my stuff arrived after I did.
Option B: Rent a Pod. I also considered renting a portable moving container and packing it myself. That way, I would have control over the packing materials used and let someone else do the driving. It’s a great option, which I also did not choose because of various time and ability constraints. Packing a pod yourself requires more effort than simply hiring a moving company and having them come and do everything for you.
Option C: Hire a full-service moving company and monitor them closely. In the end, I scoured Yelp for a cross country moving company with the highest positive ratings and the most reasonable price. I chose Spartan Van Lines and hoped for the best.
Choose Moving Boxes
I’ve moved quite often within the San Francisco Bay Area, and each time, I collected used boxes from stores and Craigslist, instead of buying new boxes. If I’d been moving a short distance this time, I would have also looked into reusable moving bins from a service like ZippGo to avoid cardboard waste. But the reusable box services are confined within local metropolitan areas. A move from one coast to the other requires cardboard. And considering the distance and rough treatment my boxes could sustain, I chose to purchase new ones from UHaul (made from recycled content) rather than reuse boxes that might not have been as strong. And I’m glad I did. My boxes arrived at my new address banged up and battered, but because of the careful packing job and the sturdiness of the boxes to begin with, none of my stuff was broken.
(Read about UHaul’s box drop off and box exchange programs for what to do with your boxes at the end of your move.)
Use Paper Packing Tape
Instead of plastic tape, I used water-activated paper tape to seal all my boxes. I chose the kind without fiberglass reinforcement threads to reduce plastic even further. I wondered if the tape would be strong enough and basically held my breath until my belongings arrived. Sure enough, everything arrived just fine. The tape held. But there are tricks to making sure it sticks well. Here’s how I applied it:
- Wet a strip of water activated (gummed) tape.
- First, apply that strip across the box, perpendicular to the seam that you are sealing to hold the flaps closed. Press it down and smooth it out.
- Wet and apply a second strip of tape along the flaps seam. Press it down and smooth it out well, so that there are no air bubbles or areas of tape that are not completely stuck to the box.
- Keep in mind that the tape is only sticky when it’s wet, so work quickly. If it dries before you get it on the box, you will have to apply more water and try again.
Note: Life Without Plastic offers a water-activated paper tape with natural rubber adhesive rather than synthetic. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about this tape the last time I ordered, so I haven’t tried it.
Water can be applied to the tape with a sponge, which is how I used to apply paper tape to packages before I got a dispenser. Water-activated tape dispensers are great, but they are heavy and expensive if you’re only going to use them for one move, and the environmental impact of purchasing a heavy metal tape dispenser for a single use seems pretty high. But since I had been selling my book Plastic-Free and shipping it using paper tape for the past five years, I already had the proper dispenser and tape on hand.
If you’d rather not spend time applying water to tape, you can still minimize plastic by choosing self-stick paper tape; however, I believe that the pressure-sensitive, self-stick tapes are coated with more plastic than the water-activated kind.
Protect Breakables Without Bubble Wrap
Before employing any type of packing material, pad breakables and fill in empty spaces in boxes with clothing, towels, and sheets: things you have to move anyway. It’s a great way to reduce packaging waste. However, be aware that it can make finding things a little more difficult on the other end. Make sure you label your boxes well, and don’t pack clothing items you need right away with items you might not plan to unpack immediately. I learned this the hard way.
After using up all your cloth items, move on to paper. We used unprinted newsprint packing paper. Yes, you can repurpose old newspapers, but the ink can rub off on your items. Packing paper is the same kind of paper without the ink. You can use it in various ways: To wrap around dishes and other breakables, or to create “bumpers” to cushion the bottoms and tops of boxes. Here’s a video explaining how to create paper bumpers and how to pack dishes and breakables. This guy uses more paper than I did for each item. There’s a trade-off between saving paper and protecting your possessions.
Seriously, we packed some pictures in heavy glass frames in nothing but cardboard, blankets, and packing paper, and nothing got broken!
Reuse Packing Paper
After unpacking my stuff, I had piles of packing paper to deal with. I could save it for future packing. But I found an alternative use for it. At my dad’s house, there’s a wastebasket in every room, normally lined with a plastic bag. My family has not converted to the plastic-free lifestyle, and using wastebaskets without liners is not an option. So, I am lining them with packing paper instead of plastic.
Here’s a video showing how to create a small bin liner from newspaper. Packing paper is more rectangular than some newspapers, so if you end up with extra on the side after making the first triangle, just fold it in. (Some people cut off the excess, but that just seems like extra work to me.) I like the method shown in this video because both sides of the liner end up equally as thick after folding. Note: I only use one sheet of paper per wastebasket, not the three or four recommended in most instructions. If you’re tossing wet stuff, such as when lining a compost bin, you should probably use more.
And here are my results re-using blank newsprint packing paper:
Sure, you could just stuff newspaper into the bin, but this method is a lot neater.
Encourage Movers to Avoid the Stretch Wrap
Despite my request to the representative when booking the move, the actual movers showed up at my door with a spool of plastic stretch wrap. I asked them not to use it, and for most of the day, it sat outside my door unused.
They did have to use plastic tape, however, to secure the reusable moving blankets they used to protect my furniture. Those blankets were not going anywhere!
Towards the end of the day, I stepped out to handle something else, and when I came back, I discovered that a couple of things had been fully wrapped in stretch wrap. *Sigh* I did the best I could.
If you’re packing your own pod or moving truck, you can rent furniture pads made from recycled denim from UHaul. And maybe you could secure them with reusable bungees if you don’t have too much furniture. Just a thought.
What ways have you found to reduce plastic and other packaging waste on a long distance move?
Thanks for this. We moved a year and a half ago and it never occurred to me that the movers would wrap all our furniture in plastic wrap. My most recent previous move had been 20 years before and they used blankets and straps. I had packed the boxes myself, without plastic but it was too late to negotiate on the day of the move for how the furniture would be handled. I’m too old to move myself and as it turned out, my knees weren’t too happy with all the box packing and squatting that was involved. Glad you fojjnd someone who at least tried to work with you.
As someone who has just moved house this was such a challenge for us. Honestly we could of done a lot better but it’s so tough with all the stress of moving. We tried to use blankets and sheets where we could but a number of the larger items unfortunately were wrapped in plastic. I’d love to know if there are any eco friendly moving services in Canada if anyone knows? Thanks
I moved in August from Pennsylvania to Montana, loading everything into my car instead of using a moving service. I did use paper tape for just about all of my boxes, opting for masking tape on things like taping drawers closed.
My issue with the paper tape was that during the move, it tended to bust open or tear due to shifting. The tape became hard and crispy after it dried, so when the boxes wiggled, the able couldn’t stretch to compensate.
Is this an issue for other people? Or is my tape just crappy?
Also, does masking tape contain plastic?
Masking tape does contain plastic.
With the paper tape, I find that you do have to make sure it is completely wet so that all of the glue is activated when you apply it to the box, and take the time to really smooth it down on each box to ensure it is stuck on very well. And while my boxes were subjected to some pretty rough treatment by the movers (the boxes themselves looked pretty banged up), the tape didn’t tear or come loose. But again, you do have to take the time to make sure it adheres very well to start with.
Thanks for the info, I’ll keep it in mind the next time i use my paper tape :)
Thank you for all the timely information…
So sorry to see you move from the Bay Area, but understand the motivation.
Thank you for the head’s up on the plastic. The last time I had a big move was over 20 years ago and it was before those spools of plastic were a common thing. I’ve moved cross country 3 times (not counting driving with my parents when I was 2). First two times I packed and drove a Hertz truck and towed my car. Third time family paid for full movers and I just drove my car (way easier but a lot more expensive). I always paid people to load and unload my truck but I did all the packing/unpacking into boxes/etc.
There is another option to the ones you have laid out. Rent a truck, pack the truck, and have someone else drive it for you. They can drive (if multiple people) or tow your car, you can drive just your car, or you may not have a car to move. There are a lot of college aged people who want to do a cross country trip but don’t have the funds or a vehicle. Sometimes you can find them via word of mouth and back then there would be newspaper ads from both sides. I think now there may be some insured companies that do the matches for a fee. Basically, you pay all vehicle costs including gas and maybe a bit extra, and sometimes return airfare. You then work out how long they’re allowed to take and how out of the way they can go. There are obvious risks, and it takes longer to set up, but a lot of benefits too, especially if you’re gifting a trip to someone you know.
Thanks for adding another alternative. I didn’t know about that one!
Weird… Is this a US thing? When I last moved over a decade ago in Germany there was certainly no plastic involved, and that was before I even bothered. Well, we probably had some food in plastic containers and used disposable plates on the day of moving.
Beth, thank you for taking pictures and making notes during what must have been an incredibly stressful time! Your blog continues to inspire and inform me. Perhaps there will be some future posts about navigating and negotiating compromises as you merge your lifestyle with your dad’s household’s?
One company my sister hired uses biodegradable plastic wrap so I was impressed. I was told that it can be thrown away in the green recycling trash bins. Have you heard of this?
Glad to hear how well you did with reducing plastic with your move. You really are an inspiration.
P.S. Oh and also I do have the paper tape that needs to be wet with a sponge..
What a timely post! :) I am also planning an upcoming, long distance move out of the Bay Area. So far, I’ve secured free, used boxes and used paper from Craigslist which I was thrilled about! They did also give me a roll of free bubble-wrap… And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten so far so I really do appreciate all the tips! Like you, I will try to avoid the plastic as much as possible and do my best. I hope that you are enjoying your new home in Maryland and being closer to family.
So very interesting, having moved a bit in Australia (Sydney, and suburb to suburb). Shrink wrap is NOT common with the company I use – they have blankets and webbed straps. I used cardboard boxes, more reused, and plastic tape. I will investigate the tape you mention for my move in less than a year. And origami bin liners I’ll also have to try. Overall, I’m impressed by your efforts and surprised at the regional differences!
Beth, thank you so very much for this! It couldn’t be a better timing! We are trying to prep for a move from Alaska to ID and currently downsizing as much as we can so we can drive ourselves there. It will be a big move. So thank you for your inspiration and the link to U-Haul.
I’m looking forward to hearing how avoiding plastic goes in your new community. Every zero waster and plastic free blogger seems to live in a urban area where there are bulk bins and lots of options. Living in the countryside where they don’t exist is reaally challenging. So much plastic for buying food. Even just buying grains.
Thank you so much for sharing this! I was someone who got rid of everything (except three bags) and have no intention of acquiring anything new, but it took a lot of work and several moves before this cleansing was complete. So it’s nice to see how others have done it and it makes me feel better about having done the best I could with what I was dealing with. It’s an ongoing effort to keep plastic to a minimum and you are a beacon of hope! XO
Thank you for this article. A big thing that people don’t know though is that a lot of our ‘recycled’ cardboard ends up being shipped all the way to China to be processed! Woah, I know! There is a company out there (I’m sorry, I don’t know the name) that will deliver reusable boxes to your home where you can pack and move and then they will pick up those reusable boxes. Now, that’s really green.
I do believe anything we can do is something, so thank you for a living a Plastic Free Life!
Yes! There are several that do that. That’s what I was referring to when I mentioned reusable moving bins from companies like ZippGo. But the trouble is that they don’t work for long distance moves because, as far as I know, they can only be used within limited metropolitan areas, not across the country.
When I moved in 2011 just a neighbourhood away, I bought recycled cardboard file boxes and large and small burlap bags to top up the boxes I found. I used all kinds of crazy fasteners from old packing tape I did not buy, to bungee cords and string. The file boxes stayed shut. Like you, I packed my things in clothing, finding socks particularly useful, but I still haven’t paired all of them! I rented pods, and they delivered to my new address on demand. I was able to resell the healthy boxes and burlap bags after the move.
I now adore and resell paper packing tape. The fanciest thing I have learned to do with paper tape is to wrap it around a plastic reused envelope so that it sticks to itself. Once one span of tape is attached, the paper label can be attached without falling off.
I made my friends help me move (suddenly and to a house that had been abandoned that turned out not to have working plumbing….) and that was a terrible idea. I still can’t believe we got it done! If I were to do it again, I would have to hire movers. I am glad I read your post! Congratulations on keeping it all together, and I hope all is well.
Thanks, Tracey! When you say plastic envelope, do you mean like those Tyvek mailers or the plastic padded mailers or something else? I’m trying to envision what you mean.
When I was young I used to enlist friends to help move my stuff and pay them in pizza. But we’re all old and achy now. :-)
All those kinds – padded, tyvek or the horrible silver that’s black inside. I prefer paper envelopes, but sometimes I use the reused plastic ones.