Whatever the reason to move—more space, a new job, a shorter commute, moving closer to (or further from) family—there’s a common question: How do I move more sustainably?
As it is, the 40 million American households moving annually are the dollop of whipped cream in the sundae that is the 290+ million tons of waste the U.S. produces each year. In plainer terms, that dollop comprises roughly 900 million cardboard boxes, 8.4 million tons of junk, 345,000 tons of food, 353 million gallons of fuel, 90 million pounds of packing paper, and 30 million rolls of tape.
Let’s just say the journey to that new brownstone could get a lot greener. And while it might be tough to reach zero-waste completely, keeping that zero-waste ideal in mind can reduce how much you ultimately toss.
How does moving generate this waste? First, many packing materials are derived from petroleum products that use fossil fuels, pollute ecosystems, and take centuries to decompose. Second, even recyclable products like cardboard boxes often end up in landfills because users don’t dispose of them properly. Third, gasoline from the moving truck (or even worse, aircraft fuel if you’re flying your boxes across land or sea) adds greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the tab.
And then, of course, there’s waste from all you’d rather chuck than pack. From food chucked because it would perish in transit to the children’s DVDs and circa 2013 hostess gifts, moving often involves a serious trip to the dump. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
While any move is going to come with some eco footprint, it’s easy to have a more sustainable move with less waste. With some advanced planning and creativity, these changes could lighten your costs, stress, and environmental impact.
Moving is a great excuse to embrace your inner Marie Kondo. Do you really need those long-expired emergency water jugs or those clothes unworn since the Obama presidency? Rather than spend the time, money, and energy to pack these items and ship them to your new place, consider relocating what you actively use and reselling, donating, or recycling what you don’t need.
Remember that statistic from the intro? Moving Americans junk 8.4 million tons of unwanted stuff each year. Charities, too, are often overwhelmed with donations, much of which may be too soiled or too damaged for their audience’s needs. Rather than stack garbage bags at town dump or thrift shop, start by sorting. Then, find new homes for clean and usable items. Finally, upcycle, recycle or (sigh) trash what is too damaged, dirty, or dated to continue in its current incarnation.
Where can you rehome items besides the charity shop? Ask friends if they want that gifted sweater or too-small jacket; post your extra coffee maker to your Instagram story, or upload items to Buy Nothing, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace. If you really just want something off your hands, you can post items for free to anyone who will come pick it up (think of it as a donation without the hassle of carting items yourself). Alternatively, see if your local dump has a “swap shop” section, or a tent where people can drop their “trash” in repair good enough to become another person’s treasure.
And once you’re on the other side of your move: Facebook Marketplace, your local swap shop, and friends themselves about to move are all great sources to find a couch for that new living room or a desk now that you finally have a home office.
The first way to reduce moving waste is to use what you already have. Before you even get to packing boxes, fill your suitcases, old camp trunks, duffels, backpacks, totes, and those vintage crates you’ve been using as bookshelves.
If you do need boxes, start with the ones shipped to your door. Thanks to the burst of online shopping which accompanied the pandemic, you may have gone through more cardboard boxes in the past two years than in your previous decade of life. And yet when many households move, they purchase boxes from a supply store or moving company, only to toss them later. To avoid such unnecessary expenditures–and waste–start putting aside boxes once you know you’re moving. If your friends just moved with conventional boxes, you could also snap up theirs once they’re settled in. Either way, you can reuse (the boxes) and reduce (your expenditure). Win-win.
If your stack of boxes seems insufficient as moving day approaches, don’t panic and run to buy more just yet. (And definitely don’t rack up the retail therapy just for the cardboard it comes in!) Instead, consider renting reusable boxes. Typically hard plastic with snap closures, they remove the need for boxes and tape alike. Moving.com breaks down their top eight picks for plastic box rentals; UHaul’s tops the list.
Fragile items like tableware and lamps often need extra protection. Rather than use bubble wrap and packing peanuts out the wazoo, swaddle breakables with clothes, linens, pillows, kitchen towels, and other soft things you’ll need to move anyway. Then you can pack, shall we say, two birds with one box!
Another source you might have lying around your house: old paper. If you subscribe to old-fashioned, door-delivered newspapers and magazines, hold onto previous issues as you prepare to move. Then, as you pack, you can use them to protect fragile items. After your move, just throw it back into the recycling bin.
If you’re reusing boxes from postal deliveries or friends’ moves, you might need some tape. And if your dishware to pillowcase ratio leaves fragile items unprotected, you might need some padding material as well. Thankfully, the world of moving supplies includes ever more green options. For tape, Treehugger recommends Kraft Gummed Paper Tape. For packing peanuts, zero-waste influencer Gittemary Johansen suggests biodegradable starch ones that you can dissolve in water and feed to your plants. Instead of plastic bubble wrap, try Grounded’s recycled-paper honeycomb roll. For even more ideas, check out the Green Business Bureau’s top ten list.
If you do need to purchase tape, boxes, insulation etc., look to local companies. That way, you can lower the environmental impact needed to get those materials to your door–and you can support your community’s economy.
If you need a truck to move everything–and/or want someone to carry the boxes for you–then a great way to lower your move’s carbon footprint further is to hire a moving company that takes sustainability seriously. While green moving companies will vary based on your area, Good Green in San Francisco, Eco Movers in Seattle, Movers Not Shakers in New York, and multi-city brands like Gentle Giants are examples to give you an idea. This article gives more detail on what to look for when choosing a green moving company. In short? Look for companies that offer reusable boxes, biodegradable or recyclable packaging materials, vehicles powered by biodiesel or electricity, and charitable partnerships to help you find a second life for your donations.
An environmentally friendly move is one that minimizes waste and carbon emissions. Start with supplies you already have: Pack your belongings in suitcases and delivery boxes, and protect fragile items with linens, pillows, and newspaper. If you need more packing space, go for reusable box rentals over brand-new cardboard boxes. And if you need packaging, replace plastic tape, styrofoam packing peanuts, and bubble wrap with biodegradable, recycled, and/or recyclable products like paper tape, starch packing peanuts, or paper honeycomb rolls. And if you’re moving across the country, send your belongings by truck rather than air freight!
The most efficient way to pack is to start with what you have! Fill your suitcases, backpacks, tote bags, and camp trunks. Pad fragile belongings with soft items you’ll need to move anyway like sheets, towels, pillows, and sweaters. And never waste a trip: if you’re driving from your old place to your new one to pick up the keys, for example, take over a load of stuff in your car to make the most of that gas mileage.
A green move is one where you’re conscientious about how your actions impact the environment. That could mean minimizing waste, reducing carbon emissions, promoting a circular economy, or all three. It also involves being aware of and making informed decisions about tradeoffs. For example, paper tape is biodegradable and made from a renewable resource. However, paper mills are energy-intensive enough that paper tape’s production might involve higher carbon emissions than some plastic alternatives. Overall, a green move is one where you incorporate the Earth’s interests as a variable in the moving equation.
Moving to a new place and starting fresh in a sustainable way won’t solve the climate crisis on its own. But reusable boxes, biodegradable packaging, and biodiesel are far more sustainable and planet-friendly than the alternatives.
A greener move is a great way to do your small part. It might even kickstart other green changes in your new home—once you’ve had time to unpack.