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4 ways to be more eco-conscious during your next move

When Friday Apaliski moved from her apartment in San Francisco to a duplex in the same city, she sourced cardboard boxes from Facebook to pack up her belongings. Drew Shula, who moved about six years ago within Los Angeles County, protected breakables with old T-shirts and towels. And Sarah Feldstein, who also lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, saves meal-kit delivery boxes so she can advertise them on Craigslist for neighbors who need them.

All three think about sustainability more than most people — it’s part of their job. Apaliski worked as a “sustainability concierge” until recently, helping people green different aspects of their lives. Shula is founder and CEO of Verdical Group, an environmental consultancy. And Feldstein and her husband own ZippGo, a company that rents out reusable, plastic moving boxes. But the tools they’ve used to make moving more sustainable are within reach for everyone else, too.

Yes, moving is stressful and expensive — and your environmental footprint may be the last thing you want to worry about — but a few tweaks can make the process a little easier on the earth (no promises about your own emotional state).

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The best way to reduce the footprint of your move is to get started early. A productive first step is to think about what you actually need and want to take with you. “It’s a good time to reflect on things,” says Apaliski, now director of communications at the Building Decarbonization Coalition.

Limiting the number and weight of the boxes you pack means transporting them will produce less greenhouse gas emissions. Once you sort your stuff, it’s also important to determine what you may be able to sell, what can go to a donation site, what needs to go to a special disposal location (such as electronics and old paint), what can be recycled, and what must go in the garbage.

“It’s going to sound like we’re going back to first grade, but: reduce, reuse, recycle,” says Britt Harter, a partner in charge of sustainability at consulting firm Guidehouse.

The more you can keep out of a landfill the better. But don’t assume you can dump everything on thrift stores; if they can’t sell it, it’ll end up in the trash, too. You can make sure your stuff is going to the right location by checking with your waste pickup company about what they accept curbside. Throwing non-recyclable items in with recyclables can contaminate the process, and sometimes cause the whole batch to be thrown away.

Early preparation also helps with arguably the worst part of a move: packing. To save money and the energy associated with creating new packing materials, ask neighbors to save cardboard boxes or surf sites like Craigslist, Facebook (particularly Buy Nothing groups), and Nextdoor to find folks giving them away.

If you’re able to spend some money on moving materials, check into an option like ZippGo. The company only rents plastic boxes in the San Francisco Bay Area, but similar companies work in other cities, such as Box Save in greater Boston and Lend a Box in the D.C. area.

Whether plastic or cardboard is the greener option depends on how many times each box is used. Generally, sturdy, reusable items are better than anything disposable, but it’s also important to consider what’s available to you geographically and financially.

“Welcome to the deep and thorny life-cycle assessment wars of personal choice,” says Harter. “​So much of it depends on the behavior with the item, rather than the item itself being clearly superior.” A durable, plastic box that lasts for years and goes through many moves is an “outstanding option,” according to Harter. But reusing cardboard is better than just going to the store and buying a mess of new boxes.

When it comes to padding breakable items, there are a growing number of more recyclable options to replace plastic packing materials. Brands now sell paper cushion wrap and biodegradable tape. Using what you already have is even better (again, it’s best not to contribute to the creation of anything new). Clothes, towels and other fabric items can sub in for other cushioning materials. Bubble wrap pouches that protected items ordered online can be repurposed as protective sleeves for breakables. ZippGo also rents plastic dividers for its boxes that keep glasses and plates separate to prevent breakage.

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The moving industry, and heavy trucking in general, has largely not made the transition to electric vehicles. Most moving trucks still run on diesel. In 2021, only 0.1 percent of the global stock of heavy-duty trucks were electric. So if you’re interested in reducing the emissions of the truck carrying your items, “that’s actually going to be one of the hardest places to have a lot of influence,” says Harter.

Newer truck models often have better fuel-economy, so you can ask your moving company to transport your belongings with a newer model if they have one. Still, one-off requests like these have minimal effect on how environmentally friendly the industry is at large.

Diya Prakash, a sales manager at Northern California’s One Move Movers, says companies need government support and an expanded network of charging equipment before the industry can swap out its current trucks for electric ones. Many moving companies are small and family-owned, and operate with tight margins. California is considering a phaseout for trucks with diesel and gas-powered engines in coming decades. The federal Inflation Reduction Act includes a $40,000 tax credit for heavy-duty electric trucks and California offers vouchers ranging from $60,000 to $120,000 for electric moving trucks.

But until more companies make the switch, moving pods may be a more efficient option. Movers often load many of them onto a single flatbed. If your move is long-distance, going this route could be a small way to reduce the number of trucks on the road.

Once you’ve unpacked, some moving companies will pick up your cardboard boxes and may pass them onto the next customer. If you post them online yourself, you can guarantee someone else will make use of them.

If you’ve wrapped and protected at least some of your belongings with towels and clothing, you’ve already reduced the amount of waste you’ll have to get rid of. But also make sure to separate any non-reusable waste properly when you unpack, recycling what you can (like newspaper) and correctly disposing of anything you cannot (like soft plastics and plastic tape).

Finally, order a pizza and enjoy your new place — and remember to recycle (or compost) the box.

Emma Foehringer Merchant is a journalist in San Francisco who covers energy and climate.

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