Waste not, Want not on Moving Day

White Mt.  We climbed this as the culmination of our
orientation trip.

Note from Rachel:  I actually wrote this post during the last week of August when I was actively moving.  I figured I just needed to throw in a few pictures of the madness and I’d be good to go.  Little did I know, that was easier said than done.  Moving was insane, then I left on the 2nd to help lead an orientation trip for new graduate students…so this post is a bit of a flashback.  Hopefully it will still be helpful to someone!  Further disclaimer:  this post contains only iPhone pictures…mostly of my cat.

It seems like only last year that we moved all our stuff from SoCal, up along the I-5, to the central valley of California.  Oh wait, that really was just last year.  Can it really be that time again?  The painters that came to my apartment Tuesday morning imply that yes, yes it is.  It’s moving time!  Transplanting to a new place is always simultaneously exciting and annoying for me.  I love the possibilities.  This year I’ll keep my room clean.  This time I’ll really put an effort into decoration.  This spring the patio garden will happen!  However, I don’t love the hassle.  Will I get my security deposit back?  Where do I put all my stuff while I shampoo the carpets?  Will my cat finally hate me if I make him move again?

Cat drinking my H2O on hot moving day.

Yes, like almost every other thing in this wild life, moving to a new dwelling has pros and cons.  In times of stress and excitement, it’s very easy to forget our environmentally minded intentions and err on the side of convenience.  I can honestly say, been there, done that.  However, as someone who has moved 8 times in the past 8 years (one time I moved twice in one year!), I can offer up a few little nuggets of practical advice for keeping your upcoming move as sane and eco-conscious as possible.  The way I see it, there are three big things that make up the process of moving:  packing, discarding unwanted items, and cleaning.  I will address the first two in this post.  In the interest of being candid, I’ll say that I don’t currently use that many green cleaning supplies.  I’m hoping to make the switch away from the more conventional stuff (and will probably blog about it).  At the moment, I’ve amassed quite a collection of cleaning solutions/sprays/what-have-you from old roommates, and I’m currently working through the last of that.  Maybe you know the old runner’s mantra “Don’t try anything new on race day”?  Moving day is my race day and is not the time to try a whole bunch of new stuff.  So, here I’ll focus on what to use when packing and how to donate/reuse/recycle those items you might not want to move to your new abode.


1) Packing Materials Matter

Cats also love scavenged boxes.

My ideal moving scenario would be this:  I scavenge cardboard boxes and day old newspapers from around town.  I pack my life away, then promptly unpack it at my new pad.  Then I either put all the boxes on Craigslist for someone to come and pick up, or I recycle the lot.  Following that plan, you get total reuse value out of all the paper and cardboard before, finally, recycling it.  Also, avoid using packaging tape by folding the lids of your boxes closed (PS: this video is really funny to me).  Probably everyone knows how to do this, but if not, now you do!  And hey, that’s one less little bit of disposable plastic you are using!  Editor’s note in retrospect:  Pro-tip, listen to the dude in the video and don’t overload these boxes if they have no tape on the bottom.  I had two near blow outs due to this carelessness.

Here is how it has actually played out this year.  We have been doing really well on getting used boxed from the co-op and businesses around town.  The co-op even has this area right in front of the store just for boxes which can be reused.  Thanks for being awesome co-op!  We also have several large plastic bins that we have had forever.  I wouldn’t personally suggest buying any of these, but if you feel you just need a couple, go down to your local Goodwill or thrift store.  The last one I purchased about three years ago was from a Goodwill, and it cost 1 dollar.  Buying used, better for the environment and your wallet (reuse forever!).  And remember to donate it back after moving if you don’t have room to save it for next time.

We got down to packing our fragile belongings, and realized we needed some sort of packing paper.  We were in a hurry (read: no time to scavenge!) and ran to the FedEx to buy some.  But we were thwarted; the FedEx only sold plastic bubble wrap!  As you have probably gathered by now, I think single use plastic items are pretty pointless (extremely slow to biodegrade, made from petroleum, general health concerns), so this was not going to fly for me because we needed a pretty large amount of the stuff.  We walked to a nearby newsstand and asked for day-old papers, of which they had none, so we ended up buying a few papers.  It only cost 4 dollars, and I read some of it before using it to wrap my plates.  Does that count as reuse?  The next day I went to the co-op and they had some day old papers, so I used those for the rest of our fragile goods.  

2) Donate NOT Dumpster

It happens every time I move.  I wonder, “How in the world did I get all this stuff?”  As a result, I always end up with a pretty hefty pile of things that I just can’t find the heart to move to my new place.  The paring down process is probably my favorite thing about moving, actually.  I think this happens to almost everyone.  This begs the question, what should we do with all those unwanted treasures?  First and foremost, please please please don’t just throw those things away.  I choose to believe that people are generally good about donating things that are nearly new or gently used.  Additionally, there are many thrift shops which will give you cash for donated items of a certain ilk (high quality, name brand, etc.).  In that case, you could, literally, be throwing away money by not taking time to donate your unwanted items.

Sad kitten in a cage on moving day.

However, I’ve had several conversations with people who put the standard a bit too high on things they are willing to donate.  A pair of pants with a stain on them?  Someone could add a decorative patch to cover that.  Missing buttons on that shirt?  I’m sure someone would be willing to mend them.  Have a lamp with a busted lampshade?  There are about a million Pinterest ideas for making new lamp shades for very little money, and I’m sure some thrifty person would be glad to give your naked lamp new life.

Am I advocating that you donate destroyed or broken things?  Certainly not, I threw out several things that were, quite literally, broken with no hope of repair and could not be recycled.  However, just tossing things out mindlessly or because “they aren’t good enough to donate” is a very privileged attitude.  Further, all those things took resources to create, and if you can give these items longer lives by donating them, you are doing a very good thing.  Yes, this does mean making an extra car trip with your load of unwanted items, but I think we can all agree that donation is one of those actions where we get maximum benefits (helping others, saving resources, reducing waste) from minimum efforts (driving 10-20 minutes).

Don’t worry, I’m climbing down from my soap box now.    

3) Reuse and (finally) Recycle

Okay, so donating clothing that has gone to the other side of gently used is one thing, but what about stuff donation centers simply don’t want?  Here, you have a few very good options for both reusing and recycling these goods.  For electronics that are on the fritz, I think Craigslist is a great way to go.  If you want it off your hand quickly, put a posting up on the “Free” section detailing what’s wrong with the item and that it will be left in such-and-such alley or at the corner of so-and-so.  You can also try FreeCycle, which allows you to list things to given away for free.  People build things from used electronics, and those people love these sorts of websites.  If your item isn’t in horrible condition, it will likely be picked up very shortly (PSA:  Don’t abandon this stuff on the side of the road.  Put it in front of your house or near your house so you can retrieve it for recycling if no one comes to claim it.).  If it’s a nice piece of equipment, you could also try selling it or taking it to a local electronics store to see if they can fix it!  If you get no takes on the electronics, make sure and recycle them properly.  Electronics have lots of precious metals in them that can be reused.  E-waste could be a whole post unto itself, so I’ll stop here and provide you with this link to NCER, a database for electronics recycling facilities in the USA.

An example of something which will NOT be thrown out.
Hilarious gift from my BFF on my 16th birthday.

Other tricky items are mattresses, box springs, and older couches.  Note that if your couch is newer or at least sturdy, you can probably get a Goodwill/Salvation Army/etc. to take it; however, these organizations will very rarely accept used mattresses or box springs.  Again, Craigslist and FreeCycle are your friends.  For these items, you will probably have an easier time getting them off your hands if you live in a larger city or if you are moving in the “off season.”  Around the beginning of September, in my area, Craigslist is saturated with mattress offers.  I actually went down a research rabbit hole looking for places to recycle mattresses and sofas.  If you check out Earth911 site you can enter in your zip code and look for a place near you that accepts mattresses.  There was not one in my area.  It seems like your best bet is to try and give it away or sell it for reuse.  There is also the option of breaking down these items yourself, then recycling or reusing the parts.  In the interests of practicality, you should try to avoid this until the end (if you end up doing it at all).  I’d love some other ideas on this front if you have them, because I honestly don’t see myself (or many others) dismantling a couch.  

Really old shoes and clothing also needs to find a home that, hopefully, isn’t the dumpster.  For shoes that are just no good anymore (see tip #2 to assess how good is no good), the best option I’ve found is the Reuse-a-Shoe program run by Nike.  I’m not a huge fan of Nike in general, but this seems like a very cool program.  Essentially, they take all brands of shoes (aside from dress shoes, flip-flops, and sandals) for recycling and convert them into athletic surfaces such as running tracks, turf fields, or playground surfaces.  You can drop your shoes off at your local Nike store or mail them to the recycling facility.  They encourage local drop off to maximize positive environmental impacts.  For super old clothes, first and foremost, try to think of ways that you could reuse those items.  T-shirts can be turned into quilts, headbands, scarves, and about a million other things.  Check out this Pinterest board I started for some cool reuse ideas.  If you’re of the less creative persuasion, like myself, you can always just cut up these clothes and turn them into cleaning rags.  After you’ve exhausted your own creativity (or if personal reuse just isn’t your situation), you can still take these broken and soiled items to the Goodwill or Salvation Army!  Check out this really cool article from the LATimes blog about how these organizations actually work with a secondary organization to reuse (mostly in the form of janitorial rags) these things or pass on clothing items and shoes to developing nations.

In sum:

My new balcony.  Possibilities…

DO:  Reuse cardboard boxes and newspapers for packing materials.  And at least attempt to donate before you ditch unwanted items.  If donation does not work, make sure to reuse and recycle when possible.
DON’T:  Buy single use plastic packaging materials or boxes.  If you must have plastic items, try to get them second-hand.  Throw out unwanted or used items all willy-nilly like.

Last Word:  Wow.  This turned into a way longer post than I thought it would be.  In general, I’d just say to remember that moving can be very hectic.  Try to plan ahead for how you will pack and dispose of items, otherwise you might end up throwing out more than you would really like.  It’s happened to me many times in the past.  As always, remember to go easy on yourself.  If you did your best, that’s really all there is to do.

What do you think?  What do you do to make your move go smoothly?  Any cool reuse or recycling tips or websites?  Mention them in the comments section.

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Why "Recycle" is the Least Important "R"

Let’s start off with the obvious.  Recycling is great!  I think that everyone should be doing it as often and for as many products as they can.  However, it’s not always that cut and dry an issue.  I will likely write in the future about specific types of recycling (ex: tech product recycling, plastics more specifically), but I want to take this time to talk about recycling in general.  I hope this post isn’t a huge bummer; I’m going to view it as a good dose of the realness.  You see, the efficiency of recycling really depends on what you are recycling and where you live.

View from the front yard of my childhood home.  I love this
place with all my being.
I’m going to start off with the latter, that where you live impacts how efficient a choice recycling is for you and your household.  As you probably know, not all recycling programs are created equal.  I have experienced both ends of the recycling support spectrum in my life.  I grew up on a farm in south central Kentucky, and, to this day, there is no infrastructure for recycling where my parents live.  Luckily, when I was growing up, my father’s 45 minute commute took him right past a recycling facility, and about once a month we loaded all our glass and aluminum (I don’t think they took plastics) into my Dad’s car.  While this worked for us, most of our neighbors had no means of getting their recyclables to the distant facility, and now that my father has moved to a much closer job (10 minute commute, he is so happy!) my parents are without a means to recycle.  On the other end of things, after moving to California, I’ve been lucky enough to live in two cities that take their recycling very seriously:  Long Beach and Davis.  Despite this, when I was researching this post I found that some things which I had been able to recycle in Long Beach (ex: Styrofoam, soymilk cartons) are not accepted here in Davis.  Oops, looks like all that washing out of my roommate’s fast food containers has been for not.    


Through my own life, you can see the two major ways that location impacts recycling.  First, infrastructure impacts recycling efficiency.  Lavee (2007) performed an analysis of a study from Israel showing that recycling of municipal solid wastes is most economically beneficially in areas with dense populations due to low start-up costs and the ease of consolidating the recyclable materials.  So, recycling is most economically viable in large, urban areas where waste doesn’t have to travel very far to get to the processing facilities*.    Second, depending on where you live, something things just will not be recyclable.  Take my example above with the Styrofoam, and apply it to your area.  This information is important, not just because it informs your decision on what to buy, but because improper recycling hurts us down the line.  The more time and person-power required to sort through our recycling, the less cost effective the system becomes.  Additionally, if you (or people at your apartment building) mix trash in with the recyclables, your items might end up just getting tossed due to health concerns for workers at recycling facilities.  Last, depending on the recycling facility, some items commonly thrown into recycling bins can really harm equipment.  For example, plastic sheeting (like what products come wrapped in) and thin plastic bags get wrapped around equipment in fully mechanized sorting facilities, causing losses of time and money (check this story for an example).  
Okay, so, maybe you are lucky enough to have access to one of the 9,000 (and rising!) curbside recycling programs in the USA (EPA, 2009).  That’s great!  You should be recycling stuff!  Same rules as above apply, so go and check out what is actually accepted by your recycling facility.  You can feel really good because you are helping to save tons of virgin materials and energy.  The nifty graph from Morris (2005) shows how much energy is required to make products from recycled versus virgin materials.  Looks pretty straight forward yes?  But let’s go through it together, because there are few things a simple graph like this really fails to convey.   
From Morris (2005)
Let’s start with aluminum.  We get the biggest bang for our recycling buck with this stuff.  I always try to buy canned products whenever possible for this reason.  This is one of the most profitable and energy efficient products to recycle.  With newsprint and cardboard, the returns are less, but still apparent.  This is probably due to the ease of access of virgin materials used here (tress…) as opposed to those used to make metals.  Despite this, making new paper from old paper is still 50% more energy savvy.  Steel and glass recycling are actually pretty energy intensive processes.  It’s still more energy efficient to recycle as opposed to landfill these items, but the benefits are noticeably less.  Last, let’s address those weird abbreviations on the x-axis.  These are two different types of plastic pellets.  As you can see, making plastic products from recycled plastic materials is pretty darn good at saving energy.  But here is the rub; plastic pellets are not made from old plastic pellets.  A plastic milk carton can never be a milk carton again.  Your soda bottle will never hold another soda.  With each step down the recycling chain, plastic gets closer and closer to an end product that is (in many cases) not itself recyclable.  Check out this website from the state of Maine for some examples of what recycled plastic products become.  Still recycling is better than land filling right?  Energy is saved at some point in all of these processes,  but isn’t there a better way? 
This beautiful basil was delicious,
 and I did not miss the plastic container so
many stores try to sell it in!
I would argue that there is a better way, a way saves energy by reducing the need for recycling and reduces waste.  We need to focus our energies on the first two of the “three r’s.”  First, we need to reduce the amount of packaging (of all kinds) we consume.  Eeps!  But what about Oreos, Rachel?  They are the best, and also wrapped in plastic.  Relax friends; remember, this is the Practical Ecologist.  I am not asking anyone to move mountains, or to make lifestyle changes they are not prepared for at this time.  Everyone is at a different place in their journey after all.  It’s often the small changes we make in our lives that actually stick, and the habits we stick with are the ones that have a chance to make a difference.  I’ll have tons of posts coming about how to reduce your use, and hopefully each of us will be able to apply a few of them!  I might even try to address this Oreo issue (it’s a real life struggle for me).  
My food/beverage containers
Second, we need to reuse the stuff that we buy.  Okay, no free lunch here.  The only thing you risk by reusing things is people thinking you are a little funny.  You get to be that gal/fella who uses old peanut butter jars as Tupperware.  Wash off your tinfoil and use it again!  Bring your reusable mugs and bags!  Patch your clothes!  I get giddy even thinking about it.  Bring to mind even one of those cheesy info-grams about how much plastic we would save is we all just brought our own bags to the store, and multiply this by your own creativity!  What can you reuse?  And then, after you have reduced your waste down to things you really want/need to buy and reused the stuff as much as possible, THEN you recycle it.  And then all the dolphins smile and the little hippie-babies at the farmer’s market all dance for you.  Really. 

FINAL WORD:  Recycling is way, way important, and I’m so glad to live in a world where the importance of accessible recycling is becoming a focus.  However, recycling is not a cure all for our waste issues.  It is up to us to change our behavior.  Vote with your dollars on products you need that match your values, and thank the good Lord for Pintrest because reusing is so in right now.  Whee!

What do you think?  Are you sold on my view of the “3 r’s.”  Have you read any cool articles that might apply to this issue?  Got any creative reduce/reuse tips?  How will this fit in with your lifestyle?
*The study found that recycling was economically beneficial in about 25% of small and regional municipalities.  We must take into consideration the general differences in infrastructure between the US and Israel, but I believe the general lesson still holds true.
-D. Lavee.  2007.  Is Municipal Solid Waste Recycling Economically Efficient?  Environmental Management 40:  926-943.  
-J. Morris.  2005.  Comparative LCAs for Curbside Recycling Verses Either Landfilling or Incineration with          Energy Recovery.  Int. Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 10 (4):  273-284.
-Environmental Protection Agency.  2009.  EPA.gov.