Destroy or Merely Throw Out?
October 28, 2009 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Committing the great library sin...which of these is a better way to get rid of some books?

My library is disposing of a large number of volumes, and is locked into a particular moving/storage/disposal company by our institutional parents. Our choices are "standard disposal" (basically tossing the volumes into a landfill) or "certified destruction (which seems to involve removing pages from spines and eventual incineration), which is a bit more expensive.

The company's only advertised reasons for the more expensive option are privacy and public relations. Our materials are not sensitive, so I don't think we have any privacy concerns. In addition, while it might be bad PR to have someone discover one of our books while roaming a landfill and then telling anyone they know how wasteful we are, I can't imagine it would be too likely.

The company doesn't make any claims that one method is more environmentally friendly than the other. Is there any reason I may be missing for choosing the destruction/incineration option?

Obviously I know there are other methods some libraries (including us in the past) use to get rid of books, but they don't seem to be an option this time. I'd hope the discussion wouldn't go that way.
posted by aswego to Grab Bag (18 answers total)
I don't see any reason for the "certified destruction" for things that aren't sensitive. It seems to me like the company providing the service is upselling people who don't need it with the specter of bad PR.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:57 AM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Burning seems rather unnecessary. Environmentally, you're producing carbon dioxide and other pollutants. In a landfill the books will (eventually) break down and become a useful constituent of soil; most of the carbon will be locked up.

A better solution: take up this issue with your parent organisation - ask them why they're not willing to shred then recycle/compost the unwanted material.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:58 AM on October 28, 2009

We used a recycling service once, they removed the covers and the rest could be recycled. Is that an option for you?
posted by wingless_angel at 8:59 AM on October 28, 2009

Library funds are a precious resource. Go cheap and store the old books in a landfill.

posted by General Tonic at 9:00 AM on October 28, 2009

Standard books made of paper wouldn't be roaming in a landfill all that long really - its natural fiber. From a PR stance, I really don't see how burning would sound any better environmentally or less wasteful than a landfill so my vote goes to the less expensive option (landfill). If you were concerend about PR I would say that you would have to recycle the paper of the books so it can be used to make new paper. Other than that its all wasted.

I am not especially educated in disposal methods' comparative impact on the environment, so I guess you could take my opinion as representative of a regular library partron.

If you are looking for a positive PR spin, you could talk about the money and space saved by disposing of these volumes that will now be put towards new stuff! Yay new stuff!
posted by WeekendJen at 9:03 AM on October 28, 2009

For those mentioning how quickly paper breaks down in landfills, is that affected at all by the binding materials (assuming "normal" binding materials)? We don't have the resources to tear the pages from the spines, and I doubt the company does that before it tosses them in the landfill. Is this still likely to be a significant environmental improvement over the incineration option?
posted by aswego at 9:15 AM on October 28, 2009

If they're not sensitive, why not donate them to artists?
posted by Mngo at 9:15 AM on October 28, 2009

When the University of Washington got rid of a ton of books maybe 10-15 years ago, they did some sort of dumpster option that meant that there were dumpsters full of dicutionaries and other nice books people might want to take home just sitting on the loading docks for a while. So while you may not think people will find your books in a dumpster -- and I agree, this is unlikely -- the PR angle might be before they get to the landfill. I'd still opt for this route personally, but be prepared with a flter or a FAQ that says "why is the library tossing out books?" or something similar. If your school is like (or is) the UW, you probably have stupid laws that say you can't actually give the books to anyone or sell them at a booksale and people may not know that so it's worth doing a little proactive PR on this. Also I have a nice dumpster-dived complete OED as a result of UWs dumb policies.
posted by jessamyn at 9:16 AM on October 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Because of compaction and lack of oxygen, even potentially decomposable materials are unlikely to decompose in a landfill. This is good because decomposition is not desirable in a landfill. Decomposition results in liquids and gases and support of bacteria and rodents. A landfill is not a compost pile.
posted by llc at 9:27 AM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Actually, paper does not degrade quickly in landfills at all.
Our current landfill techniques are such that we seal instead of aerate and not much actually gets to break down.
In investigations into what is thrown away and when, newspapers (since they have not degraded) are actaully used as a reliable and accurate dating mechanism. "Every three foot bucket of trash produces 10 to 30 readable newspapers, which does make it east for Rathje to date materials. In 15 landfill digs, Rathje said he has recovered 2,425 datable, readable newspapers."

So I think you should do whatever you can to not just throw them into a landfill. If you compost, you can shred and compost them, or send them to a recycling facility. Don't dump or burn.
posted by rmless at 9:30 AM on October 28, 2009

I'm a citizen adviser for my county on recycling/solid waste and we've spent some time discussing this issue. Book fibers are relatively high value (the paper fiber, not the cover fiber) so when we have to dispose of books we deconstruct them and bundle the book paper for high value recycling. Covers might be further recycled in lesser value fiber pile.

The *best* way to get rid of a book is to find someone else who wants to read it. A library sale or free pile is more ideal than incineration or recycling.

From your description, however, I suspect that the stripping if for recycling and not for incineration. I've also heard of companies that will take old books away as they know the value of the long fiber paper is worth the cost of removal.
posted by countrymod at 9:38 AM on October 28, 2009

I love free old library books and have fished armloads of them out of free boxes and dumpsters. I have salvaged 19th century gardening books and 30s medical textbooks that I just adore. Is there a way you could sell them? Even at 25 cents or 50 cents each, you'd probably sell most of them.
posted by pluckysparrow at 10:05 AM on October 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

If they absolutely, positively, must junked, just landfill; there's no secure reason to destroy the books entirely. But, I'm seconding the "why destroy them" thing?

Otherwise, have a library 'bag sale' - ask the "Friends of the Library" group to run it - which could bring a couple hundred bucks into your budget and give readers an opportunity to decide what's salvagable, then destroy the rest. My library has a "free" cart out from time to time, with damaged and otherwise unsellable books. We usually find two or three to take home.

Another possibility: Put it up at Craigslist as a "first person with cash takes them all", and an entrepeneurial eBayer or Amazon seller might write you a nice check and load up a UHaul. If you're a city library, find out when the next city auction is (you know, the one with impounded cars and siezed property), and put the books out as pallet lots.

It's so sad that a library, of all places, only has "destroy" as options. Ideas of graft seem likely when there's only one company providing the service, and the options are "expensive" and "more expensive". Your local paper might like an anonymous tip about books being destroyed when there are less environmentally-damaging and less expensive alternatives being ignored - of course it will look wasteful if books turn up in the landfill, and spending more money to cover it up should be a red flag to a public service.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:08 PM on October 28, 2009

It's so sad that a library, of all places, only has "destroy" as options.

That is often beyond the individual library's control--if it is a state or municipal institution, it may be subject to the kind of policies jessamyn described above.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:43 PM on October 28, 2009

The volumes in question are currently in an off-site storage facility. We can no longer pay the facility every month to hold them. We have no room for them here, even temporarily, and our institution would not pay to have them returned to us (a larger amount than disposal costs) even if we did have room. We also do not have the money to pay people to go through the individual volumes, here or at the facility, and actually prepare them in any way for some other disposal method (like recycling/donation/sales programs that have been mentioned, and which we have done in some part in the past). Either of these disposal methods is cheaper than any other option, and we will be billed for one or the other when we stop paying storage fees. It is a matter of choosing between them.
posted by aswego at 1:54 PM on October 28, 2009

So, your organization is committed to paying a disposal company to take care of the volumes.

Is there anything preventing you from giving a sustainability or other 'green' group first crack at going through the volumes at the storage facility? This valuable community-service opportunity is the kind of thing many volunteer-groups would love to take on: They could either prep them for recycling for free, or remove them from the facility to sell the discarded books as a fundraiser, but either way there would be a measurable benefit that they brought about. The library can save money (aside from the person who'd supply access at the storage facility), the group gets a visible opportunity to do good, and the volumes become someone else's problem or gift.

Maybe craigslist could be a resource for finding volunteers? Or your campus newspaper? Or even Friends of the Library? Please don't assume that just because you're locked in to paying the disposal company, that you can't find some way to minimize the materials that will need to be disposed. Personally, I'd jump at the chance to help out. Good luck.
posted by truenorth at 3:09 PM on October 28, 2009

It's true that landfill design goals originally prized long-term waste stability, but there have been a number of changes in the past 20 years. A recently built landfill will include leachate recirculation to promote anaerobic biodegradation within the landfill - this is in the best interests of the landfill operator, because if they can degrade the waste, the landfill will have a longer active lifetime and they'll make more money. It might be useful to find out what landfill the disposal company will take the books to: a large number of landfills in the US are participating in landfill-gas-to-energy projects so it's possible that your books might even be used to (slowly) generate energy. The incineration facility that the books might end up at may also be generating energy, although I don't know as much about incineration. It might be worth it to try and get some more information about the facilities in question.
posted by periscope at 4:14 PM on October 28, 2009

I wouldn't worry about shredding the books. Think of the joy of archaeologists 1000's of years in the future will have finding whole books and not just bits of newspaper from the dump. I've read about great finds (papyrus, clay tablets, etc.) like that in old Egypt and Roman dumps so it is a real possibility.
If you'd rather not have them pitched, listing the address of the storage place (if they'll allow it) on Craig's list and Freecycle along with the words "free" should clear out a great majority and not cost the library anything.
All those stories you read about people going overboard on Craig's list are very believable to me. I went to a giveaway one time where someone was moving and clearing out all the leftovers. There were 10 cars waiting before the time the poster had stated in her post. It was a little freaky.
If you're worried about bad PR, being straight forward about the library's lack of funds for storage and a giveaway that finds homes for homeless books seems like it would make the library look better and not have to worry about something coming back to bite you later.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:43 AM on October 29, 2009

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