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Is It Better To Store Books In Cardboard Or Plastic Boxes?

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When it is time to organize your books to provide more space, to prepare for moving, or to safely contain books to be used at a later date, finding the right containers is the first step. You will need to consider the weight of the books, the size, the location where they will be stored, and the environmental impact your containers have.

Storage containers are made of various different materials. Cardboard boxes are not impervious to insects and other pests, or to moisture. Plastic containers keep out pests and humidity, but can be expensive if your library is large. 

Since cardboard boxes are more readily available than plastic containers, they are often the first choice of booklovers to hold seldom used volumes. If you are planning for long-term-storage, though, plastic containers are a better choice to hold books. Here are some things to consider before getting fully occupied with packing your books into boxes.                

What are the Pros and Cons of Cardboard Boxes For Book Storage

Unless you just plan to toss your books randomly into the nearest empty cardboard box, you will probably do some scrounging to find the boxes which will hold your collection. Unfortunately, not all cardboard is created equal. If you end up with a stack of already assembled cardboard boxes you may get everything packed, but not in a way that allows for accessibility and safety. The wrong packing choices can cause damage to your books, and can even render them unusable.

Advantages of cardboard boxes

Using cardboard for short term storage has a number of advantages. It may not be the best long term storage choice however. Here is some information to guide you in picking the right containers.

Easily acquired

Cardboard boxes of many sizes are readily available from almost any merchant that routinely receives merchandise. You may have to learn when they discard empty boxes in order to pick them up and bring them home to your library. Most of the time, there will be no cost for boxes that are previously used. You can also often see free boxes advertised on community marketplace accounts online. Someone who has recently moved may give away moving company boxes which are lightly used. 

Variable sizes

Depending on the sizes of books which you are placing in storage, the ability to find cardboard boxes of all different sizes is an advantage. You can pack a few heavy books in a small box, or dozens of lightweight books in a midsized box. Similarly, the shape of the books will affect how they should be packed. You will need to be aware of the optimum orientation for books when packing your cardboard storage containers.

Depending on the sizes of books which you are placing in storage, the ability to find cardboard boxes of all different sizes is an advantage. You can pack a few heavy books in a small box, or dozens of lightweight books in a midsized box. Similarly, the shape of the books will affect how they should be packed. You will need to be aware of the optimum orientation for books when packing your cardboard storage containers.

Is it better to store books in cardboard or plastic boxes

Light-weight

An empty cardboard box usually doesn’t weigh a lot, but when properly assembled and secured, can be quite sturdy. If you are placing many books into cardboard, the weight is in the contents of the box, rather than the box itself. Boxes are also easy to disassemble and store or transport flat.

Corrugated cardboard comes in various designs, which make it appropriate for various uses and strengths. The board is formed from two liners and the inner corrugated medium called a fluting. Cardboard boxes are assembled in a manner to provide a robust structure. The fluting is great for supporting strong weight. The air circulating through the flutes provides some protection against temperature fluctuations.

Corrugated cardboard comes in various designs, which make it appropriate for various uses and strengths. The board is formed from two liners and the inner corrugated medium called a fluting. Cardboard boxes are assembled in a manner to provide a robust structure. The fluting is great for supporting strong weight. The air circulating through the flutes provides some protection against temperature fluctuations.

Is it better to store books in cardboard or plastic boxes

TIP: For additional information about storage container options, see the article: ‘What is the best container to store books in?’

Environmentally sound

Since cardboard is made of a paper pulp material, it can be considered a product from timber. It can also be manufactured using shavings leftover from lumber mills, or from recycled wood chips. Most of the primary raw material used to make corrugated cardboard comes from fast-growing pine trees. The major packaging firms own thousands of acres of land. There, trees are matured, harvested, and replanted using seedlings.

Since cardboard is made of a paper pulp material, it can be considered a product from timber. It can also be manufactured using shavings leftover from lumber mills, or from recycled wood chips. Most of the primary raw material used to make corrugated cardboard comes from fast-growing pine trees. The major packaging firms own thousands of acres of land. There, trees are matured, harvested, and replanted using seedlings.

Is it better to store books in cardboard or plastic boxes

More and more consumers and customers around the world are responding to the environmental impact of waste products on the earth. Studies on the topic show that a third of consumers prefer brands that are sustainable. Cardboard and similar packing materials decompose relatively quickly and avoid using non-renewable sources.

More and more consumers and customers around the world are responding to the environmental impact of waste products on the earth. Studies on the topic show that a third of consumers prefer brands that are sustainable. Cardboard and similar packing materials decompose relatively quickly and avoid using non-renewable sources.

Is it better to store books in cardboard or plastic boxes

Permeability

Permeability is the quality of materials which allow for through passage of moisture or gas. When it relates to cardboard, permeability is present. Unlike the composition of plastic, some air can pass through the cardboard, thus preventing condensation from forming when humidity and temperature fluctuations occur and moisture is trapped in sealed containers.  

Light prevention

Protecting your books from sunlight and from artificial light which is harmful is one of the goals of archival type storage. Cardboard blocks out all or nearly all light exposure, so books are less likely to fade. 

Archival quality or acid-free

Although some people may equate the terms ‘acid-free’ and ‘archival’, they have somewhat different purposes and benefits. Archival-quality implies that the paper has a neutral or slightly alkaline pH value, while also containing no unbleached pulp or groundwood. Acid-free paper may simply be treated to temporarily reduce natural acidity.  Since acidity negatively impacts book paper and bindings, anything that can be done to reduce the amount of acid that comes in contact with valuable or rare books is beneficial.

Disadvantages of Cardboard Boxes

There are some instances where the characteristics of cardboard boxes that make them desirable can have negative repercussions. Care in packing and placing the boxes in storage can lessen some of the negative aspects of cardboard, but not all of them. Here are some of the reasons to avoid cardboard for storing your book collection overflow.

Too much weight for the box

Although cardboard boxes are relatively strong for their weight, packing books into them without careful consideration of how the weight is balanced can create problems. Books are not designed to bear weight along the spine edges, and any shifting of the weight inside the box can cause flexing and bowing. The strength of the box is only as strong as the seams where the edges are joined together. Failing to reinforce secured flaps at the top and bottom with tape or proper interleaving can also result in box ends coming open and spilling the contents.

Deteriorate easily

Because cardboard is essentially paper, it is affected by moisture. It is also affected by dry conditions. Moisture and humidity can cause the cardboard to pull apart at corners and edges. If the moisture level is high enough, the box can begin to disintegrate and leave the contents open to the same humidity which caused the box to split. Because of its permeability, moisture can wick through the walls of the box and ruin all of the books inside. Metal staples can also be subject to rust damage.

Dead air inside

Finding books to fit precisely into the available boxes can be akin to putting together a flagstone terrace with no ability to shape the stones. Dead air pockets in the box can cause wear and tear on the bindings and edges. It also means that there is lots of wasted space in the box. Without support on all sides of the box, the contents can shift and cause damage to unsupported areas. 

Stacking

Stacking boxes in storage may sound like an efficient use of space, but if you are working with multiple sizes and shapes of boxes, they may not line up precisely enough to be supported on all sides. Stacks of boxes can easily slide or tip sideways with a resulting avalanche of boxes and loose books. Too much weight on the bottom boxes can also put undue pressure on the boxes and on the books inside. 

Magnet for pests

Many of the common insects and pests that feed on the materials used in books also can attack the boxes. In fact, they may chew through cardboard boxes on their way to eat your book collection. These insects and other pests will eat cardboard and may set up housekeeping in the spaces inside the box. Some of the troublesome intruders include silverfish, termites, paper wasps. There is also the potential presence of mice, which can create a nest in any comfortable space which includes moisture, food and nesting material.

Pros and Cons of Plastic Boxes

Plastic containers for your long-term book storage have some benefits and some problems, just as cardboard does. When balancing the positives and negatives of the two types of storage containers, here are some points to consider.

Advantages of Plastic Boxes

The rigidity of plastic boxes can cause some people to choose plastic for their book storage needs. Plastic boxes come in a variety of sizes and shapes. They are also constructed of both clear and opaque materials. The thickness and quality of the plastic will make a difference in the effectiveness of the bins and boxes as a storage container. Here are some of the reasons to choose plastic over cardboard.

Keep out pests and insects

With very few exceptions, insects and other pests cannot or will not chew through plastic to get at the contents. Unless there are larvae already present in the stored books, a clean storage container made of plastic should not be the home of mice, and other vermin. The caveat to  that claim is that you will have to be careful not to introduce insects into an otherwise pristine storage container.

Non-permeable

A container of plastic is not airtight, but it is non-permeable. Moisture and gasses will not seep or wick through plastic walls. If excess moisture is in the area around the stored bins, because of high humidity, leaks, weather conditions, or flooding, the water will not soak through the plastic. No one wants to prepare for a worst case scenario, but a valuable or well-loved book collection needs to be protected and cared for at a minimum level. 

Easy to clean

Plastic surfaces are easy to clean, and are generally resistant to most types of stains. Air drying and sunlight for new plastic bins should get them in good shape to hold books and papers. Make sure that the container is totally dry before placing books into it. If you are not sure about the books which are to be stored, clean them and treat for insect populations before storing them. 

Block or diffuse light

Bins are available in clear plastic, opaque plastic and solid color plastic. Preventing light exposure on your books is recommended to keep them in top condition. 

Stacking

Because bins are designed to be self supporting on the walls, they can be stacked evenly with weight supported along the tops of the walls as braced by the tight-fitting lid. However, the amount of weight resting on the lids can be too much. Look for weight variables when purchasing plastic bins, and resist the urge to create a wall of interlocked storage bins made of plastic.

Because bins are designed to be self supporting on the walls, they can be stacked evenly with weight supported along the tops of the walls as braced by the tight-fitting lid. However, the amount of weight resting on the lids can be too much. Look for weight variables when purchasing plastic bins, and resist the urge to create a wall of interlocked storage bins made of plastic.

Is it better to store books in cardboard or plastic boxes

Disadvantages of Plastic Boxes

Plastic boxes for storage are known for both positive and negative features. In each aspect, there are usually some workarounds that can offset the negative characteristics. 

Mold buildup

Even the slightest bit of moisture inside a closed plastic container can lead to a bloom of mold and mildew. These fungi smell bad, and they also ruin most surfaces where they are found. Placing one book with mold into a closed container is an invitation for many ruined volumes. The destruction can happen almost overnight. Placing silica packets or other desiccants in the bins will help to dry out any minor mold infestations, but the best treatment is preventative and the best time to pack a plastic bin is a day when humidity is low.

Cost

Depending on how many bins must be obtained for storing your books, the containers can create a budget crunch very quickly. The most inexpensive bins may not do well when they are stacked, because the side walls are not as strong as they need to be. 

Limited size options

Finding bins of plastic which are quality construction, are not see-through, and hold enough books to be worthwhile for storage may be a challenge, Plastic containers designed for food storage in the kitchen or pantry tend to be too small to work as book storage containers, and 33-gallon or larger bins filled with books quickly become too heavy to move easily. 

Environmental Impact

For eco-conscious book lovers, plastic is not a preferred option because of its failure to break down. Until technology provides a solution for the mountains of plastic waste generated annually around the world, compostable products are preferred. 

Can be affected by temperature extremes

Some types of plastic are affected by extreme heat. The plastic softens slightly, causing bulges and dips in the surfaces. Extreme cold applied around a plastic container can cause it to become brittle and crack, especially if this occurs with an unevenly packed bin under pressure from above or the sides. 

What should I look for in a book storage container?

When planning for a storage container for books, it is important to determine the length of time that the books will be stored. If the duration of the storage is only a few days or weeks, paying for expensive plastic containers may not be the best approach. However, plastic containers are often utilized for many purposes once the immediate need is over. 

If the environment where the books will be stored is at risk of undue moisture, cardboard boxes are not the best choice. They may hold up for a few days, but the combination of moisture and books does not bode well. 

If insects are a risk, or if you suspect there may be mice or other vermin in the storage area, you do not want to use cardboard. Even if the mice do not get into the cardboard boxes, their feces and urine can soak into the cardboard, and ruin the books that are stored there. 

Temperature fluctuations may be somewhat less troublesome if you store the books in a space where climate control is available. Overall, assess your storage space and look at the top options for long-term storage. 

What is the Best Container to Store Books In?

Ultimately, saying that one or the other container material is best is an exercise that is dependent upon the space and environment status. As always, store books that are clean, dry, and arranged appropriately in the container. Use silica gel to reduce moisture in the bins or boxes.
Avoid packing books into the space in a way that the spine is unsupported. When you take a hard look at storage options for books, overall, plastic bins seem to be the preferred choice for archivists and restorers. However, archival cardboard boxes are also a possibility.

Since top quality plastic containers meet more of the criteria for safe and convenient storage options, they are generally considered to be the preferred choice for home library storage containers.