A difficult path: How volunteers, waste workers save old books from going to the landfill
It’s been almost a week since Alachua County’s Friends of the Library fall book sale ended, but for volunteers and book lovers alike, the hardest part of the work is just beginning: throwing away books into the dumpster.
“Paperback books that can’t be sold are recycled,” said Ellen Smith, a 15-year volunteer who manages the hardback fiction table. “Regrettably, hardback books cannot be recycled.” Books that have been written in or sat in the garage too long aren’t sold.
“We try to save every book that’s in a condition that someone would want to buy,” Smith said. “We retain as many books as we can to sell and/or donate to the public.”
“If shoppers haven’t bought a book for even 10 cents after five days, we don’t keep it,” she said.
Smith is one of around 240 volunteers at Friends of the Library, a nonprofit organization that receives books and other materials from Alachua County libraries, family members who have passed away, the University of Florida libraries, private collections or retired professors. The books are collected in a warehouse on Main Street in Gainesville as a de facto final gathering place to be either sold at a deep discount to the public in the book sale, donated to area hospitals or thrown into the trash.
During the five-day sale in the fall and spring, approximately 500,000 items are sold. After the sale, the remaining items are available to nonprofit organizations for free. The remaining books and materials are thrown away.
A 2012 study on textbook recycling estimated that 640,000 tons, or 320 million books, are discarded in landfills every year. If there were a larger emphasis placed on book recycling, it would prevent 32 million books from going into landfills, according to the same study. Paperback and hardback books are recycled as mixed paper, a paper grade category that also includes mail, newspaper, office paper and magazines, making the study of book recycling difficult.
Only 12% of mixed paper waste was recycled in Alachua County in 2022, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection annual report.
Green For Life Environmental collects waste from residents and businesses in the county, including the Friends of the Library book sale. Truckloads of waste are then brought to the Leveda Brown Environmental Park & Transfer Station. Leveda Brown has three operations: the transfer station, the materials recovery facility and the hazardous waste facility. It acts as an intermediate location for waste to be dropped off and redistributed to other facilities.
Residential or commercial waste that is collected from recycling bins is sent to the materials recovery facility, which sorts the recycled materials into categories that are sent to another processing facility.
Charlie Hobson, materials recovery manager at Leveda Brown, said his operation sends hardback books, which can’t be recycled, to other vendors because they have the right machinery and people to complete the process. The binding, which holds a hardback book together, is cut out of the back of the book and then the hardback and paper are recycled in separate processes, he said.
A paper mill won’t accept deteriorated or water damaged paper but will remove and reuse paper that is in good condition, he said.
Gus Olmos, solid waste resources and recovery director at Leveda Brown, said someone brought books to be recycled that were in good condition, but there was an error in the printed copies.
Depending on the type of book and if an Alachua county resident chooses to recycle a book, then the materials recovery facility is able to send it to a place where it can be handled properly, he said.
“Our first step is [to] see if we can put them back in circulation,” Olmos said. “If we have the opportunity to donate it to somebody else, we will try to do that.”
There are rural collection centers located throughout the county where residents can send and receive small items for free.
“The recycling rules change from place to place,” he said. “There's certain things that we do here that a different community may do differently. It's a local type of business.”
A bookstore called Books and Music, Wormhole takes a different approach.
“I personally don't throw away books,” said Philip Wurm, owner of the book and record store. “I find a place for them to go.”
For books that are too damaged to be sold, Wurm said he uses a paper shredder for the inside pages of a book. He said he uses that paper for collages or as material for sculptures.
“I'm sort of a neurotic person that doesn't want to see books destroyed unless they have to,” he said. “If they are destroyed, I try to make something with them.”
He said he receives books from customers or through trading and prefers not to buy from distributors. He also donated his own books to the prison located on Waldo Road.
He has a collection of boxes filled with books that have damaged covers and wants to rebind the books because the paper is still in good condition, he said.
“I am morally opposed to writing in books,” he said. “It’d be a tragedy to throw a book away that has notes on it.”
Michelle Benoit, a volunteer who oversees the drama table at Friends of the Library, joined during a sale because she said it looked like everyone was having so much fun.
“I wish people wouldn’t put books in the garage,” Benoit said. “We want books to go to people who want them. If you don’t want to take it home, no one else wants to read it.”
Ron McKown volunteers his time to transfer donations onto library carts for sorters, volunteers who decide which table an item belongs to. A table coordinator prefers to see each book donation regardless of its condition, McKown said.
He said a donation can contain two books to a truck load. “What we really try to do is as little discarding as possible,” he said.