The Mark Of Zero

The Official Blog of the Zero Waste Network

Friday, January 23, 2009

New York Times


January 22, 2009

Moving Day Without All the Waste

By EMILY B. HAGER

BETWEEN graduating from college and moving in with his fiancée, Jim Mimlitsch moved nine times in 14 years. He hated moving, but accepted it as his fate and developed a habit of hoarding cardboard boxes.

For convenience, he kept a set of boxes on standby in the back of his closets.

But after Mr. Mimlitsch, 38, bought a condominium in Irvine, Calif., in 2002, he happily handed off his boxes to a friend.

“I just didn’t want to have them anymore,” he said. “It just felt more like home that way.”

Then last June, Mr. Mimlitsch became engaged and began to prepare for yet another move, to his fiancée’s apartment in Laguna Hills, Calif., and for the headache of acquiring more cardboard boxes.

When he told the real estate agent through whom he was renting out his condo how much he dreaded this aspect of the move, she suggested he contact Spencer Brown, the owner of a three-year-old company, Rentagreenbox.com.

Over the phone, Mr. Brown explained the deal. He would show up at Mr. Mimlitsch’s place with a truck filled with Recopacks, rentable plastic bins made entirely from recycled plastic. Mr. Mimlitsch would pack them, a moving company would transport them, and Mr. Brown would pick them up, empty, one week later.

Mr. Mimlitsch was sold.

For years, Fortune 500 companies have rented reusable plastic crates to relocate from one office to another. Pharmacies and supermarkets regularly use them to ship merchandise.

Now the crates are coming to the residential moving market, thanks to consumers’ desire for options they see as both convenient and environmentally responsible, and to the cost of cardboard boxes (which has remained high in many areas in spite of a recent collapse in the cost of the recycled cardboard from which most are partly made).

When Mr. Brown started out in 2006, he said, about 3,500 of his crates were typically being used for residential moves at any given time; now the number is closer to 7,500. Given the overall demand, Mr. Brown said, he predicts there will be “hundreds of companies in the next 10 years” like his.

His firm, which operates mainly in Los Angeles and Orange County, is opening its first franchise this month, in Riverside, Calif., and plans to open nine more in March nationwide.

Across the country, a seven-year-old company called Movers Not Shakers in Brooklyn rents and moves bins, mostly around New York City and New Jersey.

In December, Mark Ehrhardt, the company’s owner, started a Web site called GreenmoversUSA.com that he hopes will become a for-profit listing service for eco-friendly movers around the United States. (There is a notice on the Movers Not Shakers Web site that reads, “Hello other moving companies — wanna join in and create a national bin network?”)

Other moving companies around the country, concerned about their industry’s reputation for waste, are taking other steps to be more green, including converting trucks to biodiesel, setting up free cardboard-box exchanges (in which consumers return boxes for use by others) and offering biodegradable replacements for bubble wrap and foam made from materials like cornstarch and recycled paper sludge.

Patrick Wilkinson, a founder of Movegreen, a year-old two-truck company based in Santa Barbara, said that consumers “want to help this movement grow, and because of that our business has done really well.”

Movegreen’s trucks run on biodiesel, and the company says it plants 10 trees for every move through a nonprofit group called Trees for the Future. The business also plans to design and order 200 to 300 of its own plastic bins, which it hopes to have by June.

But in the moving business, as in most businesses, going green can be expensive, and it may not always pay off. Fairly or not, movers often suffer from problems of reputation beyond just the issue of waste — for lateness, careless handling, high rates — and any changes that make their moves more expensive or less efficient can be disastrous.

“When a person is moving, they want to cut out any kind of potential surprises,” said Mr. Ehrhardt of Movers Not Shakers. “They just want things to go smoothly because they are transitioning already. So they don’t want any kind of surprises or New Age thinking.”

Mr. Brown, of Rentagreenbox, ran into trouble when he inadvertently damaged a few engines in converting his trucks to biofuel. And Mr. Ehrhardt said he has been trying for years to find an alternative to packing tape. Giant rubber bands have proved too unwieldy, and water-based biodegradable tape is too expensive — at about 10 times the price of regular tape, it is not a cost he thinks he can justify to his customers. So after three days, he winds up with “comically large” balls of tape.

Hence the attraction of reusable bins. Prices for short-term bin rental are comparable to purchase prices for cardboard boxes: a large bin of about 4 cubic feet rents for $5 a week from Rentagreenbox and $3 a week from Movers Not Shakers; U-Haul charges $3 for a 4.5-cubic-foot box.

The reusable bins are less practical for interstate moves or moves to storage. “The quicker they turn around, the higher the value to everyone,” Mr. Ehrhardt said.

While there are environmental and financial arguments for both types of container, few studies conclusively compare the relative merits of plastic bins and cardboard boxes made from recycled material. But there is a widespread view among environmentalists that it is always better to reuse a product rather than manufacture a new one.

“Reusable durable packaging shows a lot of environmental benefits,” said Saskia van Gendt, a resource conservation expert for the Environmental Protection Agency office in San Francisco. (She was quick to add that “the comparative benefit of the durable plastic bin is contingent on its repeated use.”)

Thomas Vinson-Peng, the program director at the Center for Environmental Excellence at the University of Texas, Arlington, said: “Most people have seen the little logo with three arrows that says ‘reduce, reuse and recycle.’ Recycling is good, but reuse is better.”

Cardboard boxes, when they are reused, typically last for about four moves, said Joanne Fried, a spokeswoman for U-Haul International. And their fibers, according to Dwight Schmidt, the president of Fiber Box Association, a cardboard industry group, can usually withstand seven rounds of recycling (in which about 43 percent ends up as a new box).

Plastic bins, not surprisingly, last much longer. Mr. Brown estimated that some of his have been used 400 times.

For some consumers, convenience is as big a draw as eco-friendliness, movers who use the plastic bins say.

Erik Frederickson, a design consultant for Rentacrate, a Boston-based company that has mainly rented to businesses, said the firm has received more and more requests from homeowners who had used the crates at work and want to avoid the hassles of cardboard-box assembly.

Maureen Dempsey, who used Movers Not Shakers for a move from Manhattan to Brooklyn in November, said she was pleased with how easily she could wheel her bins, stacked snugly atop one another on a dolly, through the tiny apartment she was leaving.

Susan Laughter, another Movers Not Shakers customer, said she appreciated not having to deal with getting rid of dozens of cardboard boxes — a task that in New York City requires collapsing and bundling them — after she moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Mr. Mimlitsch, too, was glad to not deal with cardboard boxes again, but he also found another aspect of using the crates surprisingly satisfying. What many might regard as the main drawback of the rental system turned out, he said, to be “a positive for us.”

“Just knowing that we had a hard stop and we had to be done a week later, we couldn’t give in to exhaustion and frustration,” Mr. Mimlitsch said of the period after he got to his fiancée’s apartment. After all those years of moving, he was grateful for the tight deadline that kept him from procrastinating in his unpacking.

     
  The Zero Waste Network is a program of the University of Texas at Arlington, Center for Environmental Excellence and the Division for Enterprise Development.  

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