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?