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Hit the road without trashing the planet: Low-waste moving tips during COVID

Updated: May 12, 2021

By: Kelley Dennings

The pandemic may have everyone stuck at home, but for many people the location of home is changing. In the months between February and July 2020, as COVID-19 crept across the country, there was a nearly 4% increase in moves compared to the previous year as people fled big cities or dorm rooms or went looking for a change of pace. Temporary moves were up 27% for the same period, and there’s no indication this migration is slowing down.

I’m no exception. When my lease expired in December, I packed my things and temporarily relocated to the sunny south for the winter. What might make my move a little different, though, is that I tried my best to create very little waste.

Whether you’re headed across town or across the country, moving often leaves behind a mountain of waste. Every year Americans trash an estimated 16.8 billion pounds of junk when they move. They also use 900 million boxes and 90 million pounds of packing paper. Even if some of it gets recycled, disposing of all that waste demands energy and other resources, contributing to habitat loss, pollution and the climate crisis.

But there are steps you can take, like I did, to reduce the risk that moving to your new home will cost wild animals and plants their home.

Once I made the decision to move, I also made the decision to consciously consume by buying only what I absolutely needed. This helped me reduce the amount of stuff I had to move and/or rehome.

One place I focused was food because up to 40 percent of food that is produced in the U.S. every year is wasted. I learned to meal plan each week, helping me use up what was left in my refrigerator, cabinets and freezer. Sharing food might feel weird during COVID, but anything unopened I gave to a neighbor or local food pantry and made a mental note to purchase less of it next time.

To stop junk mail from following me to my new place, I tracked what was being mailed to me for a month and then sent back the business reply envelope with a note asking to be removed from their list. You can also visit CatalogChoice to remove your name from other mailing lists you may not know you are on.

The one thing that’s hard to avoid acquiring during a move is boxes. Rather than buying brand-new moving boxes I got them for free by requesting them from online groups like Freecycle, NextDoor or Facebook’s Buy Nothing group, but you can also get them for free from liquor and grocery stores. There are also companies that rent reusable plastic boxes, but if you move a lot like me you might want to invest in purchasing your own reusable tubs.

I skipped the packing paper and instead used my own towels, rags, sheets, pillows and clothes to protect my more fragile items. Using what I already had as packing material saved paper and its associated natural resources.

Most of my usable but unwanted items were given away through contactless online programs and outdoor curb alerts. The online outlets were great for things a regular charitable organization wouldn’t take, like my leftover holiday ribbon or a half-used roll of piping insulation.

In the end I gave two bags of winter clothes to a local charitable organization supporting homeless women. Due to the pandemic, I called them first to ask what they were accepting and how they were handling donations. If you want to ensure your items go to organizations with values you support, look up the charity on Charity Navigator or Guidestar first.

The best way to help the planet is to prevent waste in the first place, because by the time you’re choosing between the donation or recycling bin all of the land, water, energy and other materials that went into producing your stuff has already been spent.

But there are several categories of items that can’t or shouldn’t be put in the regular trash or recycling. While packing up my stuff I unearthed old electronics, expired medicine and household hazardous waste like chemicals, batteries and lightbulbs. By recycling and properly disposing of these items I helped keep toxins out of the environment. E-waste, for example, represents 2% of America’s trash in landfills but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste which can harm soil, water and wildlife.

Whether you’re hiring professional movers or recruiting friends and family to help you during this upside-down time like I did, take precautions to keep everyone healthy by wearing reusable masks and gloves and staying socially distant when possible. The pandemic may add some challenges to your move — it may even be the reason you’re moving in the first place — but with a bit of planning, it’s possible to come up with a strategy for a more sustainable move that creates less waste and keeps everyone safe.


Kelley Dennings is a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. She has worked for local and state government recycling departments and now focuses on waste prevention and reuse.



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