While books are a potentially recyclable material, most municipalities throughout the US do not presently allow for people to recycle books.

In 1977 former President Carter had stated that “Solid wastes are the discarded leftovers of our advanced consumer society. This growing mountain of garbage and trash represents not only an attitude of indifference toward valuable natural resources, but also a serious economic and public health problem.” 

He had been referring to the fact that many millions of tons of potentially recyclable materials are being sent to landfills throughout the US every year. By not enacting programs which would enable these materials to be recycled, we’re not only missing numerous opportunities that would result in creating jobs, we’re also contributing to numerous environmental problems.  

Why Aren’t Books Included In Municipal Recycling?

The technologies which enable books to be recycled do exist. Bookstores have the option to send some of the books that they cannot sell back to publishing companies. 

Elementary schools, high schools, colleges, universities, public libraries and religious institutions send their books back to the publishing companies when the books that they use are superseded by newer editions.  

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Publishing companies also have numerous boxes of misprints and defective copies in their warehouses. Publishing companies send obsolete editions of books and misprinted copies to paper recycling companies which pulp them.  

However, books that individuals no longer wish to keep as well as books that charity shops are unable to sell are almost never recycled. 

Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting

 As I researched this article, the most current data that I could find was a publication which The National Wildlife Foundation has published in November of 2012 which estimates that approximately 320 million books, which amounts to approximately 640,000 tons of books are sent to landfills throughout the U.S annually.  

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This issue is not studied closely every year, so unfortunately the most current reliable data that I could find is from a source which is now 9½ years old.  For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that the numbers will be higher today simply because the population of the U.S. has increased from 313,874,000 in 2012 to 331,894,000 in 2021.   

Books Do Not Leach Toxic Chemicals Into The Ground 

Some The Pavlovic Today readers may recall back in the 1990’s when audio CD’s and DVD’s replaced audio cassettes and VHS tapes as the most common media that people throughout much of the world were using when they listened to music and watched movies at home.  There were a notably small number of people who attempted to research whether audio cassettes and VHS tapes were recyclable, but for the most part the issue of recycling the older mediums was entirely ignored, and many millions of audio cassettes and VHS tapes ended up in landfills.  In more recent years, we’ve seen LCD and LED monitors replace CRT monitors, and once again while a small number of people did attempt to enact programs which would enable people to recycle their CRT monitors, the vast majority of CRT monitors have ended up in landfills.

Unlike audio cassettes and VHS tapes, which are made of plastic and CRT monitors which contain a number of potentially dangerous chemicals inside them, including lead, books do not contain any potentially toxic chemicals which can leach into groundwater when they’re dumped into landfills.  

However, there is another reason that it is potentially quite beneficial to encourage municipalities to require the companies that they contract with which are responsible for household recycling to purchase the equipment which is necessary for recycling books.  

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Kindles, nooks and other devices which enable people to read electronic copies of books are becoming increasingly popular every year now. However, the demand for paper products will likely still continue to increase in future years.

Deforestation is now occurring on an unprecedented scale, in some countries the environmental protection agencies and law enforcement only have the resources to stop a small percentage of the illegal logging which occurs.  Illegal logging occurs because mills in some countries accept truckloads of logs without verifying where the trees were harvested from, and it is profitable for them to process logs.  While many of the trees that are being cut down today, both legally as well as illegally are used for in the construction industry and for manufacturing furniture, a significant percentage of the trees that are harvested throughout the world annually are used for manufacturing paper products.  

 While there are some kinds of paper that are not made from base materials which are derived from wood, most of the books that are printed today are printed on paper which is manufactured from a mixture of wood which comes from several different species of trees.  Therefore, the pulp which comes from recycling the pages from books can be used in the manufacturing of numerous kinds of paper products.  The more paper products that we recycle, the fewer trees will need to be harvested, and this will enable governments throughout the world to set aside more acreage for parklands. 

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I do want to point out that this is not an entirely perfect solution.  The process of pulping paper involves a lot of electricity, and while some recycling companies get their electricity from solar, wind or other clean sources, many recycling companies get their electricity directly from regional grids, which are still largely powered by coal and other fossil fuels.  

The process of transporting materials to recycling companies involves transporting tons of boxes on commercial trucks, and while some trucks are powered with biofuels, most are powered by conventional diesel fuel which comes directly from petrochemicals.  

The process of deinking and pulping paper also involves a lot of chemicals, only some of which are harmless to the environment.  

Expanding household recycling programs so that people can include books that they no longer wish to keep would be the best solution involving currently existing technologies. This is far preferable to the current system in which many tons of books that people no longer want to keep are sent to landfills. 

The result of books continuing to be sent to landfills is that more acres of forested lands will need to be logged to meet the demands for paper supplies in future decades.  

Read also: The Cost We Are Paying For Not Recycling All Plastics

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Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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