I have too many shoes and too many books. I now know this because I have had to pack them — all of them. I can honestly say half the reason I rarely move is because I hate moving. Interviewing Al Gore was easier than packing boxes and pouring through all the memories embedded in my stuff.
Nearly everything I have purchased has a story: the first rug I bought in a village in Indonesia, the art I tentatively studied and procured in India, the ceramic mugs my friend Sam made, the bamboo bowls I ordered from Viva Terra. I care deeply about not only how I spend my money but the impacts of my stuff. Whether it’s a carton of milk or bottle of shampoo, I want to know the hands that made the product were paid fairly and the resources used to manufacture the product will not be diminished beyond capacity. So when it came to shipping my precious cargo from my mom’s house in North Carolina, I was, of course, invested in that, too.
I logged five hours just deciding on a rental van for the move. Here’s how I did it. First, I determined the most wasteful parts of a move — boxes, packing materials, and the fuel it takes to get from point A to point B. Then, I figured out how to minimize them. Boxes were easy. I asked others who had moved for theirs. Yes, it was that simple — and cheap! Had it not worked, I would have reverted to what I’ve done in past moves: ask grocery stores if I could have their boxes. No store has ever objected because the boxes are always destined for the recycling bin.
When I am done, I can pass the boxes on to friends, Freecycle them or, worst case, recycle them. I say “worst case” because I would rather give the boxes another life. Most cardboard boxes can make it through four moves. Since I rescued the boxes from the recycling bin, I know they have had at least two lives — but I would like to give them more. Another incredible alternative that I would have investigated (had they been available in my area) are rentable, recycled plastic bins that can be used repeatedly and keep plastic from our landfills.
Now for packing materials. My mom taught me to transform every textile into a packing material: t-shirts and cloth napkins get stuffed into glasses and vases, while blankets, comforters and towels enshroud framed paintings or buffer the hard edges of furniture. If I don’t have enough blankets or towels, I buy a few extras from Goodwill and pass them along to the local homeless shelter or Humane Society when I’m done. Bubble wrap and packing peanuts (even the ones made of bio-plastic) do not jive with my desire to stay eco-friendly but when I do end up with the stuff (when I buy, ahem, shoes), I usually drop them off to FedEx and they happily reuse them. UPS does the same.
Now for the biggie — the moving van. The most resource-intensive part of a major move is the amount of fuel consumed during the trip. Petroleum greatly impacts the cost of our moves and the toll they have on the planet. Green Movers and Go Green Moving are two full-service movers that work in certain parts of the country and use low-emissions moving vehicles. But I only needed a truck, not professional movers, and I don’t live in the spots these eco-movers service—so I scrutinized the major truck rental companies. . .for hours.
There is a concept in environmental communications known as “greenwashing,” the corporate practice of making a company seem greener than it actually is. Those exaggerations lull consumers into thinking they are making a more environmentally friendly choice by choosing one product or service over another. Because we are inundated with information, it is not always easy to separate authentic green from greenwash. (Greenpeace has a fantastic blog that can help you make this distinction.)
I wanted to make sure I did not fall prey to greenwashing in my hunt for the perfect rental truck. Transportation is one of the greatest contributors to climate change. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, moving freight accounts for 20 percent of all energy consumed within the transportation sector. That means the most important way to green your move is to be very picky about your vehicle.
While U-Haul and others have interesting sustainability policies, it is simply not enough to offer recycled moving pads or retrofit trucks with fuel gauges that indicate the speed required for optimal fuel efficiency. In order to have a real impact, companies can’t just say they are planning to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions; they have to do it. EPA’s voluntary Smartway program is a partnership with freight carriers that ensures this very thing. The only commercial truck rental company in the Smartway program to earn an exceptional rating for fuel efficiency and environmental performance is Penske.
I found my optimal truck, but it was not easy. Penske does not trumpet their greenness (though they should). I took the time to research the Smartway program and dig around other sites to see what they were really up to. Then, I got on the phone with representatives from various moving companies. Hours later — no, days later, I had my answer.
Penske is committed to replacing their fleet with efficient vehicles, providing diesel on their larger-sized trucks (which get 8 to 10 mpg, compared with 6 to 8 mpg on their smaller gasoline-powered trucks) and offering eco-friendly moving supplies. Their moving blankets (in case you don’t own enough cloth to pad your breakables) are available for rent and made from 70 percent post-consumer recycled fabric. And, if absolutely necessary, they sell boxes certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative that are made from an average of 30 percent post-consumer and 5 percent pre-consumer waste. Their packing peanuts are made from 100 percent recycled materials.
Moving is never fun — at least not for me. But I have been taking it back to the idea of relationships: the relationship I am forming with my new house, the relationship with my beloved friend who is helping me move, and, in the face of too many books and too many shoes, the small but mighty moments of empowerment that come with knowing these changes help me tread a little more gently on the Earth.
You can find more move musings on Twitter @simransethi.
May you find small but mighty moments of empowerment,
Photos by Jessica Sain-Baird