Disappearing Ink

What will happen to all the books?

Every day in Phoenix, truckloads deliver more than 3,000 tons of trash and recycling to the transfer station, an isolated facility off the Black Canyon Freeway, to be sorted or taken to the landfill.

On a cold morning in January, material snakes through thousands of square feet where machines and human arms sort paper, bottles, cardboard, plastics and an influx of discarded holiday decorations.

From the observation deck, it's hard to keep track of what goes by and where it's going, but it's easy to spot items you wouldn't expect to see at a recycling plant — sandwiched between flattened boxes and soda bottles was an American flag, a collection of stuffed animals and remnants of paperbacks.

Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe
Jamie Peachey
Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe

Down the line, the American flag is pulled and the stuffed animals are placed off to the side, but the books take the long journey with the newspaper and the junk mail. At the end of the day, the recyclable materials are sorted, bundled like hay bales, and sold to Chinese pulping plants, say city officials.

Hardback books aren't processed at the North Gateway Transfer Station, employees say, because of the time it would take to destroy them.

Other places are a little more enlightened.

Susie Gordon is a senior environmental planner in Fort Collins, Colorado, and oversees a unique drop-off facility that encourages community members to sort their own recycling into huge bins of different colors. Container number three (out of seven) is for books.

"[Recycling books] has been a conundrum for me for years," she says. "I remember when I first started to see people bring in sets of encyclopedias, but now people come in wanting to unload boxes of books. It's heartbreaking."

She says hardback books don't make it to the guillotine as often as they should.

Gordon says bin number three at her facility in Fort Collins is only for paperboard, phone books and paperbacks, but hardbacks are often tossed in with the rest of the paper. She and her employees attempt to pull out the hardbacks from the piles and either donate them through a company called Snow Lion Books or send them to facilities that have a guillotine. If they aren't pulled, they're separated at a paper recycling plant and sent to a landfill.

Gordon's been to a paper-recycling plant where she saw paperbacks and low-grade paper being pulped and recycled into new paper.

"All of the books go into a big bath of water where the material turns into a pulp," she says. "What's not dissolvable, like bits of tape, floats to the top and is skimmed off of the bath. The material is then stripped of its ink, and enormous machines then squeeze the pulp and roll it out into these huge, industrial-scale sheets."

The pulp then is sold to manufacturing plants that create tissue, egg cartons, hospital gowns, shoe boxes, insulation and coffee filters. Depending on the strength of the pulp (paper can be recycled only six or seven times before its fibers are too short to fuse together), it also can be turned back into paper and used to create more books.

Books have more blades than just the guillotine to fear. In the past decade, more artists have used books as art supplies. They carve into the covers with scalpels, tear apart the pages and create collages, landscapes and sculptures that leave some book fans uneasy.

Seattle-based artist Casey Curran recently created from antique books a series of sculptures called "Structuralism." In each piece, books with common themes and characters were laid open, cut in half, and glued together, side by side. Curran says he hasn't hesitated to admit to fellow artists that he cut into books to make art, but he has hesitated to explain to booksellers what he's planning to do with the antique novels once he takes them away from the checkout counter.

Now, more than ever, he agrees, the book is a cheap (and often free) medium for artists willing to check out the sale section of their local bookstore or to Dumpster-dive.

Jon Guetschow has worked in Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon, for more than 17 years. He currently runs the used-book section in the five-story, block-wide bookstore, which relies on the books Powell's customers sell back (both in person and online) and those purchased from bookstores that have gone out of business around the country.

Guetschow's been collecting images of book art in a folder on his computer — despite the fact that he's not a fan.

"I don't want to make too much of it," he says. "And I actually have seen less reverence being placed on the physical book as more people make things out of them. Where books used to be carved into intricate landscapes, they're now being used as building blocks, or torn apart to make the feathers of a bird. I just saw a sculpture where someone had cut a book in half and fixed it to the end of a dust-broom handle."

Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe disagrees.

"I've seen extraordinarily beautiful pieces that are created from discarded books. ... And for the most part, I've seen pieces of sculpture that artists have created to call attention to the word and to the physicality of the book. They've turned what is already a work of art into something curious and profound. It's become something beyond just the book."

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I am going to write a fucking story for the Dallas Observer. You people know who I am. 

O.K. Theseus: Big roads (Interstates, Tolls High 5, eternal beltline) are how some dispersed cities manage "minority growth"


I still order books online and support the local secondhand book store when I go into town... A book I had been looking for since back in the mid 1990's became available as a down load for Kindle or a reprint by a Canadian company for $43... I chose to pay $73 for a first edition and in one week it had appreciated in value to over $200 and now only 3 months later is being sold for $400.59 dollars.... I wish my other investments were performing as well.   

TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

It's pretty hard to get all teary eyed about zillions of pages of unsold Shades of Grey, Dean Koontz or Stephen King paperbacks heading to the shredder.

Probably the most noble use that paper-fiber will ever serve is cradling a dozen eggs home from the market for someone. 


As an author with a foot in both worlds--I write large illustrated coffee table books and work as an editor for an EBook company--I see some interesting issues.  For convenience and for books I just want to read, nothing beats an e-book. But you cannot share or loan an e-book. And it is hard (though not impossible) to autograph one.  I often want to share books I love, and cannot do that if I only have the e-book version. Thus I often end up buying two copies--one paper and one electronic--of books I really like. One to read and one to share and get autographed.