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When to Use Cardboard Boxes vs. Plastic Bins When Storing

Moving boxes and bins

There are many iconic matchups in this world. Left vs. right. Coke vs. Pepsi. The Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics. The list goes on.

One matchup you may not have considered is the rivalry between boxes. That’s right: plastic bins vs. cardboard boxes. It may not look like much, but for anyone moving or storing goods, this rivalry is a big deal. If you’re in the midst of a move or if you have just booked your very first storage unit, you may be looking to pick a winner from this pair. To help you choose, the moving and storage experts here at Stor-It have put together the definitive guide on cardboard boxes vs. plastic bins when storing and moving. Learn the pros and cons of each and make the right choice for your needs!

Plastic Bins

For the purposes of this rivalry, we’re defining plastic bins as any storage boxes made of plastic and designed for a lifetime of use. In most cases, plastic boxes will come with detachable lids, but not always. They are most commonly made of polypropylene and polyethylene.

Plastic Bins: The Pros

Some people say “plastic” is a four-letter word – but in this section, it’s a compliment. Here are some of the major advantages that come with using plastic bins for moving and storage.

  • When matched up against cardboard, plastic definitely wins in the durability department. Plastic is both thicker and harder. Plastic is also waterproof, and the best plastic bins will create a watertight seal when closed.
  • Plastic lasts longer than cardboard boxes. You can use and reuse plastic bins without them wearing down, tearing, or getting waterlogged.
  • Aesthetic Appeal. There’s nothing wrong with the look of cardboard per se, but most will agree that plastic bins look better than their paper-based rivals. If you’re going to store your belongings in a garage or another area of your house, think about which type of box you’d like to see in your space.

Cardboard Boxes

These ubiquitous storage items need no introduction, but for the sake of argument, we’ll define cardboard boxes as semi-permanent receptacles designed specifically for storage.

Note: Shoeboxes, product packaging, and other cardboard materials aren’t considered below.

Cardboard Boxes: The Pros

Plastic bins have a few big advantages over cardboard boxes, but they don’t win in every category. Here are a few pros that fall squarely in the cardboard boxes camp.

  • In most cases, cardboard boxes are just easier to find. Visit any moving rental company or a self-storage provider and you’re sure to find bundles of cardboard boxes with the rest of the moving supplies.
  • Space Efficiency. Not only are cardboard boxes thinner than plastic bins – they’re also fully collapsible. When you’re not using them, simply unfold them at their tops and bottoms and slide them into a convenient storage space in your house or elsewhere.
  • Sizing Options. While this category is close, we’re giving the nod to cardboard boxes. In almost every place they’re sold, cardboard boxes are available in at least three sizes: small, medium, and large. These sizes are also nearly universal across all moving boxes, so you’ll be able to find them almost anywhere. Plastic bins, on the other hand, are typically sold in one or two sizes at most retailers (unless you shop online), and those sizes can vary considerably across brands.

Plastic Bins vs. Cardboard Boxes: Contested Cons

We’ve covered what each storage receptacle does well. In doing so, we’ve also touched on the areas where each one comes up short. Now it’s time to get into contested territory. The categories below can all be considered “cons,” but choosing the lesser of two evils in each of these cases is easier said than done. Read on for the verdict on a few neck-and-neck races between plastic bins and cardboard boxes.

  • Unless you’re accepting donations, you’re going to have to spend money on either choice. So, which one is more affordable? If we’re measuring by storage volume, cardboard boxes are the clear winner. A cardboard box will cost significantly less than a plastic bin of the same size. However, if you intend to keep and use your plastic bin for most of your life, then the cost can equal out. Plastic bins rarely need replacing, but you will need to get new cardboard boxes. Another factor to consider when it comes to price is the number of receptacles you’ll need. If you anticipate needing more than 15 or 20 large-sized receptacles, then cardboard is likely your best bet. 20 plastic bins (or more) is a significant investment that may not fit into many budgets. (The lesser of two evils: cardboard boxes.)
  • Environmental Impact. Both cardboard boxes and plastic bins have a carbon footprint, but that footprint varies depending on how you use them. The jury’s out on which material costs more (environmentally speaking) to produce, though plastic bins require more materials. Well-maintained plastic bins can last a lifetime (or longer), which makes them more efficient and less likely to end up in a landfill than its cardboard counterparts. On the other hand, cardboard is both recyclable and biodegradable, while plastic is only recyclable. But before you go throwing your cardboard boxes in the compost, make sure they don’t have excessive ink printing or wax coating, as these can cause harm to the environment. (The lesser of two evils: plastic bins.)
  • Both cardboard boxes and plastic bins will spend the majority of their lives in storage. While in storage, these receptacles will likely be stacked. So, which choice stacks better? Plastic bins are stronger and more stable than cardboard boxes, which means they will sit flush atop one another and hold more weight than their cardboard cousins. However, plastic is also smoother than cardboard, which means there is less friction between bins. This can lead to sliding if there is even the slightest level issue. Cardboard, though weaker than plastic, is less prone to sliding. Cardboard boxes can also settle into one another, which can add stability (at the risk of crushing goods inside). If stacked properly, plastic can’t be beat – but when conditions are less than perfect, cardboard can often be more forgiving. (The lesser of two evils: it’s a draw.)

Plastic Bins vs. Cardboard Boxes: Specific Use Cases

If you’ve made it this far in our guide, you’re probably starting to understand that plastic bins and cardboard boxes each have their advantages and disadvantages. Determining which one is right for you starts with understanding your situation and your specific needs. In the sections that follow, we give recommendations for when to use each type of storage solution.

When to Use Plastic Bins

Plastic bins are best for storage situations that require maximum durability, strength, and resistance to the elements. If you anticipate water being a potential risk (from leaky pipes, a particularly moist basement, or not-so-watertight storage spot), plastic bins are the way to go. Also, if you’re going to be storing where people can see your bins (in a bedroom, den, or other indoor areas) plastic bins are much more pleasing to the eye. Most importantly, if you anticipate using your receptacles for a long time, plastic bins are a worthwhile investment.

When to Use Cardboard Boxes

For temporary storage situations on a large scale, cardboard boxes simply can’t be topped. If you’re moving your home or business, you’ll likely require a lot of boxes to pack your stuff and move it from Point A to Point B.

Point B may be your new property, or it may be a storage unit where some of your stuff will stay for a few months or years. If the goal is to pack and unpack in a relatively short timeframe, it’s best to save money by using cardboard boxes. If you’re going to be packing a lot of receptacles (more than 10 or 15), cardboard boxes are also the better choice for your wallet.

While they both have their perks, we’ve pinned the two storage containers against each other. Check out their pros and cons below:


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Cardboard Box Pros

Often the tried and true choice, cardboard boxes have their share of perks:

  • Availability: It’s easy to get your hands on cardboard boxes, whether you salvage some for free or invest in a sturdy stackable box.
  • Durable: While perhaps not as strong as plastic, these boxes are made with corrugated, durable cardboard.
  • Efficient: When you’re not using them, you can conveniently fold and flatten cardboard boxes without taking up excess space.

Cardboard Box Cons

Cardboard boxes do have their drawbacks:

  • Short lifespan: Cardboard boxes don’t last forever, especially if they get wet.
  • Lack of aesthetics: Brown boxes obviously aren’t transparent, which creates unnecessary opening and closing if they are incorrectly labelled or entirely missing a label.
  • Extra materials: To properly pack and unpack these boxes, you’ll need packing tape, scissors, box cutters, and markers to label them.

Plastic Bin Pros

Whether you rent or purchase them, plastic bins have a lot going for them:

  • Long-lasting: Plastic bins can last a lifetime. They’re reusable, too!
  • Durable: Partially waterproof and thick, plastic bins can help protect your items from the elements.
  • Stackable: Plastic bins conveniently stack on top of one another, and they look good doing so.
  • Transparency: No matter if you label your bins or not, you can always see your treasures without fully unpacking the contents.

Plastic Bin Cons

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine. There are some cons associated with plastic bins:

  • Expensive: Plastic bins tend to cost more than cardboard boxes.
  • Weight: Plastic is heavier than cardboard, and these bins are even heftier once you load them up with your belongings.
  • Time crunch: If you rented them, you will have to unpack and return them by a certain date.

Learn More and Shop Packing and Moving Supplies Here at Stor-It

Want more advice on cardboard boxes vs. plastic bins when storing? Our team at Stor-It is here to help. As Idaho’s oldest and largest self-storage provider, we have friendly and knowledgeable experts ready to answer all of your packing and storage questions. Contact us to speak with a member of our team directly. Searching for plastic bins, cardboard boxes, and other packing and moving supplies to use for your storage needs? We proudly sell a large selection of packing and moving supplies at each of one 14 Southern Idaho storage locations. Follow the link above to learn more, and be sure to check out our Locations page to see all of the incredible self-storage options we have to offer.

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