Should you pay for cardboard boxes?

By David on May 3rd, 2011 | 1 Comment

Should you pay for cardboard boxes?

Cardboard boxes are everywhere in today’s world; they are the vessel of choice for the vast global supply chain that moves goods across the planet, meaning most shops and offices are inundated with dozens of them every week.

This should mean free boxes are just as abundant. Yet strangely the opposite seems to be the case. In recent years more and more people have started paying for cardboard boxes, an activity that can quickly become very expensive if you need to buy more than a few.

Why has this happened? And should you pay for cardboard boxes when you suddenly find you need a lot of them for moving your possessions into self storage?

The end of free boxes

People used to get free cardboard boxes from the local supermarket, which was glad to dispose of all the ones that had been used to deliver fresh produce and packaged goods, as otherwise they’d just be thrown away.

However, the age of recycling has changed all this. Now, most supermarket chains have developed sustainability initiatives in order to show how ‘green’ they are, which typically include recycling all their excess packaging.

While this is good news for the environment, it has had a knock-on effect on the cardboard box market, as the reduced supply of free ones has made customers more willing to buy them instead.

The major self storage companies have spotted an opportunity here, and all sell their own range of boxes and other packaging supplies both online and in-store. These are conveniently located for self storage customers, and can usually be delivered to your door, but they are expensive, given that secondhand cardboard boxes used to be widely available for free.

The five biggest self storage companies each charge the following for a ‘medium’ box, which is roughly the same size in each place:

Shurgard         £2.90

Big Yellow      £3.25

Lok’n Store     £3.50

Access             £3.50

Safestore         £4.34

These are not unreasonable prices, but they do mean that for a self storage move-in requiring 50 such boxes, you’d be looking at a cost of between £145 at Shurgard and £217 at Safestore, on top of your other transportation and self storage costs.

And it feels like a lot for something that you used to be able to get for nothing – especially when you may never need to use the boxes again. Fortunately, for those seeking an alternative, there are still places where cardboard boxes can be obtained for free.

A bit of thinking outside the box

The first place you should try looking is your local supermarket, as long as you pick your moment.

According to an employee at one of the major British supermarkets, they do still give away free cardboard boxes to customers – it’s just that they aren’t put on display anymore, so you usually have to ask:

“We deal with literally hundreds of cardboard boxes every day, most of which we have to put in the baler, a big machine that slices and compacts them so they can be recycled. The fresh produce is put out early in the morning, though, so if you arrive as soon as we open and ask for boxes that have been used to transport fruit, we usually have a few we can give away – perhaps 50 overall each day, so most people who ask are given about 10. You have to arrive as soon as we open, because there are people who arrive first thing just to ask for boxes, and after that they’re all gone.”

Fruit boxes, particularly ones used to transport bananas and apples, are reckoned to be best for general use because they are of very sturdy design.

Most supermarkets open at around 7am, so you need to be waiting there then, and you’ll probably only get about 10 boxes in one go, meaning you’ll have to visit on 5 consecutive days if you need 50; perhaps this shows why more and more people have started paying for their boxes.

There are other places which give away free ones as well, though. If you ask nicely, smaller supermarkets may save boxes for you to pick up at a more convenient time, especially if you’re well-known there.

Off-licences also have to deal with a lot of boxes, so it’s worth asking in them too – although it may be best to buy something first, in order to get in the owner’s good books.

Slightly unpleasant as it may seem to think about it, fast food restaurants also receive most of the food they serve pre-prepared in cardboard boxes, meaning that they have lots to give away, so this can also be a good option (make sure you aren’t given ones with grease stains on them, though).

An increasing number of municipal dumps or recycling centres now have cardboard-only sections, so, as a last resort, it could be worth visiting your nearest one and asking if you can have a root around. These will normally have been flattened, so you might need some tape to put them back together.

Put your shame in self storage

Perhaps what this really shows is that it’s actually not that much harder to get free cardboard boxes nowadays; it’s just that they aren’t on display as much as they used to be.

This may reveal a fascinating insight into the British national character, as it seems that having to ask a shop-assistant if you can have their used cardboard boxes is a line many British consumers are unwilling to cross: the expense of purchased cardboard boxes may be much easier to bear by comparison.

All you have to do then is place your shame in your own self storage, along with whatever else you want to store. It’s remarkable how many times the question ‘do you have any cardboard boxes to give away?’ is met with the answer ‘yes’.

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One Response to “Should you pay for cardboard boxes?”

  1. Really good points and topic, we are seeing evidence of this situation as the supermarkets reduce the amount of good quality boxes available free of charge. It helps us as we sell a full range and it also helps in peoples decision making when weighing up wether to move themselves or hire a professional remover.
    I have written a post recently and linked to your article as yours is so relavent and covers the subject in more detail. Its called “Where have the removal boxes gone?” and is available at
    One final point worth a mention is that people looking for a good supply of quality removal boxes and paper etc should ask friends or colleagues if they know of anyone that is moving soon. If they can find someone they may well welcome you picking up their discarded packaging as it will save them a trip to the re-cycling depot.You could be accessing hundreds of pounds worth of free packaging!

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