Plastic bins: better than boxes

I associate lots of things with moving — stress; cursing landlords for raising the rent. But mostly, I think of cardboard boxes — big ones; small ones; half-opened boxes that linger for several weeks in my new home until I find a spot for all my stuff; and finally, piles of cardboard waiting for recycling day once those boxes are broken down.

After I decided to move late last year, I braced myself for yet another Boxpocalypse. I was griping about it in a group chat when a friend asked, “Have you considered renting plastic bins?”

Plastic bin pros

For the past decade or so, plastic bins have emerged as an alternative to cardboard boxes. They’re reusable, water resistant, and sturdier than even the most heavy-duty cardboard options. Since they’re stackable, they also take up less space. 

You can buy your own bins or rent them. If you buy them, that makes them an appealing candidate for QR moving labels, which let you scan the label with your phone to see a photo or inventory list of the bin’s contents. If you rent them, a set of bins gets dropped off at your home and you pack up your life and move. In a few weeks, those bins get picked up from your new home. 

Most bins look like this, though they come in a variety of colors depending on the company.
Image: Bin-It

If, like me, you plan on renting bins, there’s actually a fair amount of research that you have to do. Here are some of the things I learned to take into consideration before starting a move using bins.

What kind of service do you need?

First: are you hiring movers or doing everything yourself? If it’s the former, it’s much more convenient (albeit pricier) to find a moving company that offers bin rentals and handles the move for you. But if you’re renting a U-Haul and calling in favors from friends and family, you may find it easier to pick a bin rental company that only rents bins. That way, there’s no need to worry about getting upsold on additional moving services.

Check your company’s service area, prices, and rental period

Prices vary depending on how many bins you rent and whether you choose service bundles. That said, bins tend to cost between $5 to $6 per bin on average, not including taxes.

In my case, I was moving across state lines, and while all the companies I checked out would drop off the bins for free, some wouldn’t pick them up from my new home. I’d either have to pay an extra pickup fee, drop them off myself, or find a company that serviced my new neighborhood as well as my old one. I was only moving across the border from New York to New Jersey, but even then, I had to cross a lot of companies off the list.  

When researching, bin rental companies often offer breakdowns and bundles to make things simpler.
Screenshot: Bin-It

In the end, although I had to pay extra fees for moving across state lines and the stairs in my new home, I got a decent price: $5 a pop, or $150 total for 30 bins. 

You’ll also want to confirm the rental period. Some companies have a strict window and won’t let you extend it. Some offer free extensions, while others do so for a fee. 

You’ll also want to check if there’s a minimum number of bins that you must rent. I wanted to order bins a la carte, and I only found one company in my service area that would do it — so long as I rented at least 15. The rest had rental packages based on the size of the room. 

What’s included?

Most companies include labels, zip ties, delivery and pickup, and an assortment of bin sizes. But if you rent the bins from a moving company, it’s not guaranteed they’ll move the bins into your home for free. A handful of companies I researched only included moving bins onto the ground floor — multiple floors and apartments without elevators came with an added fee. I moved into a four-story townhouse and would’ve been charged per floor. We ended up paying a fee to have the movers drop off all the bins on the second-floor living room and got in our cardio schlepping the bins destined for the third and fourth floors ourselves.  

The ecological choice

Bins are also touted as a more sustainable option than cardboard boxes because they’re reusable and produce less waste. Bloomberg reports that residential cardboard recycling lags far behind that of businesses, partly thanks to the boom in e-commerce. The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that 56 percent of paper and cardboard waste ended up in landfills and that only 38 percent of cardboard is actually recycled. As much as that number makes me cringe, I also can’t deny that breaking down cardboard boxes is one of my most hated weekly chores.

Breaking down cardboard boxes is no fun, and a ton of residential cardboard still ends up in landfills.
Photo by Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

Packing up

Packing bins isn’t all that different from boxes, though there are quirks. 

In past moves, I preferred smaller boxes for heavy or fragile items. However, the company I went with only offered one bin size: large. (Others offer medium and large-sized bins.) Luckily, that didn’t end up being a huge issue. I just had to be more strategic about weight distribution. With some towels and T-shirts for padding, my fragile items made the move intact. 

Because bins have interlocking and stackable lids, you don’t have to use tape to close them. Once I was done packing a bin, I just plopped it neatly on top of another, saving space in my cramped New York City apartment. And plastic is water resistant — nobody likes moving on a rainy day, but soggy cardboard makes it worse. 

Remember that these bins will have been through many moves

On the other hand, remember that these bins will have been through many moves. While the insides were clean, the outsides of my bins were covered in black Sharpie, with the names of rooms scribbled in various handwriting. One bin had transported things meant for one person’s kitchen, another’s living room, and yet another’s bedroom. The bins also had remnants of other people’s poorly removed moving labels, leaving me hardly any space to write which rooms to place the bins for my move. This meant they weren’t a good option for QR labels, which was a bummer.

Moved and done

What really sold me on using bins was that they come with a time limit: you have to return them after a two-week period. This was the fastest unpacking job I’ve ever done. It was stressful, but by the time the delivery men came to pick up all 30 bins, I was a week into the move and 90 percent done. That helped me relax into my new home a lot faster.

Plastic bins might not be for everyone — but you won’t see me moving with cardboard boxes anytime soon. Switching to bins made moving much less nightmarish than it’s been in the past. That extra convenience — and the fact that I am four months into my move with nary a cardboard box in sight — was well worth it. 

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