What To Do With Old Books: How To Treat Yo’ Shelf Sustainably
We get it. Books are hard to let go of. Who doesn’t have an old textbook lying around, a childhood favorite you’re clinging to, or worse—a novel you swore you’d get to someday?
When it’s finally time to refresh your collection, you may wonder what to do with old books.
Trash ‘em? Burn ‘em? Dump ‘em?
About 640,000 tons of books are sent to landfill each year. That’s roughly 320 million books!
But increasing book recycling by just 10% will keep up to 32 million books out of landfills. Besides, landfills clearly have enough reading material for the next several epochs.
Don’t let your old books be reduced to mere dust collectors or take up space underground. Begin a new chapter in their lives instead.
1. COMPOST OLD BOOKS
Even if your old books are unusable or damaged beyond repair, you still have plenty of options.
Like most paper, pages of old paperback books and old hardcover books can be composted right at home.
In fact, paper is a beneficial addition to any compost heap. Paper absorbs excess moisture and crumpled pages increase the necessary aeration in the composting process.
Carefully remove any parts that are not paper or cardboard—they won’t compost. This includes:
- Glossy, metallic, or plastic-coated covers
- Plastic or metal spines from spiral-bound notebooks
- Built-in bookmarks made of elastic or ribbon
- Battery-powered pieces that light up or play music
- Scrapbook or sketchbook pages with lots of glue, stickers, oil paint, or tape
Check out this guide on what is compostable for more information.
2. RECYCLE OLD BOOKS
Wondering if you can recycle old paperback books?
Yes, you can.
If you don’t have access to your own indoor compost bin or compost heap, don’t worry.
In most places, you can recycle paperback books with your regular paper recycling, since they’re primarily made of paper. This is perfect for books that are outdated, no longer readable or in poor condition.
Help those paper fibers get put to good use!
But can you recycle hardcover books?
Again, yes you can. But it may require a little more prep to get recycle-ready.
You may notice they’re held together with a variety of materials, including cloth, string, or glue. The cover might also be cloth, plastic, or leather.
Many recycling facilities are not equipped to recycle hardcover books with non-paper materials. Some may accept only a few of those listed. Non-recyclable materials that arrive at recycling facilities are often rejected and sent to landfill, despite our good intentions.
If you’re not sure where to start, Instructables has a super-helpful step-by-step guide on how to unbind hardcover books.
Unfortunately, some places do not accept books for recycling at all. Book disposal guidelines vary by location, so always check your local policies before recycling.
3. DONATE USED BOOKS
Wondering how else you can get rid of old books?
There are lots of options, if you’d rather donate old paperback and hardcover books, academic books and textbooks.
- Donate used books to your local thrift store or charity shop. (two birds if you were wondering what to do with your old clothes, too!)
- Libraries often accept old books you can’t sell and gently used magazines. Always call ahead to make sure your donation is needed.
- Consider gifting old children’s books to a local school or childcare center.
- Donate old books to a community you care about:
- Oxfam gives old books a second life at its 500+ locations throughout the UK. Rest easy knowing that books that can’t be sold are recycled.
- Second Bind distributes donated books from Canada to hospitals, libraries, and charities around the world.
- The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation’s Share-A-Book program provides books to Indigenous, refugee, and marginalized communities.
4. TRADE OLD BOOKS FOR NEW-TO-YOU READING
Move out the old and bring in the new with a book swap. Here are a few ways on how to dispose of old books and get one back, too:
Give them to a Little Free Library
Organizations like Little Free Library make trading within your community simple and accessible. Little Free Library is a network of over 100,000 free book-sharing boxes scattered in neighborhoods around the world.
Unlike a traditional library, there is no ledger or check-out process. Instead, each Little Free Library operates on an honor system. Anyone may take a book, share a book, or both!
Sharing an old book is not required in order to take one—simply come back to your neighborhood location when you have a book to share. Find your nearest Little Free Library (or start your own) here.
Organize a book swap.
Connect with book-loving communities virtually via social media. Facebook hosts countless groups dedicated to exchanging used books locally. App SwappyBooks allows users to organize trades with people nearby.
On a global scale, try Paperback Swap to trade with readers worldwide. Or, send an old book on an adventure with BookCrossing, which allows users to track their donated book’s physical journey from reader to reader with a unique code.
Don’t forget friends and family.
Consider the bibliophiles in your life who might appreciate an old book you already own.
Get a group of friends together and host a book swap party. Invite each guest to bring a mystery book of their choice to give away “white elephant” style. No one will know what book they’ve chosen until the end of the party.
This is an opportunity to let your imagination run wild: Go all out with literature-themed invitations, snacks, decorations, or party games.
5. SELL USED BOOKS FOR EXTRA CASH
Who could say “no” to a little extra spending money?
To spend on more books, of course.
Disposing of old books is easier now than ever, especially selling via an online platform.
Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist are prime examples. You can sell old books in lots or groups of related titles for quicker, more convenient sales.
eBay and Amazon have the advantage of reaching a large number of customers. Although they require more effort from the seller, this in turn provides more information to potential buyers.
Book Scouter is a fantastic place to sell old textbooks. Search for your book using its ISBN for a list of pricing offers. And don’t worry—Book Scouter accepts lots of regular books, too.
Offline, consider selling used books to a local, independent bookstore. Contact stores ahead of time to find out what they accept and what payment they offer.
6. GET CREATIVE AND REPURPOSE OLD BOOKS
Much like repurposing old jeans, let your creativity shine and transform old books into something entirely new:
- Use pages for recyclable wrapping paper – a zero waste gift wrapping solution. Traditional wrapping paper is not recyclable, so this lets you repurpose old books (recycling that old phonebook, for example) while avoiding a less sustainable option.
- Remove the spine to use as a bookmark.
- Hollow out the center leaving a secret compartment. Use it to store your keys, a prized possession, or even your favorite plant.
- Fold beautiful paper flowers to make a statement at a wedding, shower, or party.
- Design a vintage-inspired gallery wall or headboard, and restyle it for every season.
- Use individual pages as unique canvases for painting or drawing.
- Decoupage pages onto upcycled furniture to create a custom piece. Imagine a music stand decorated with old sheet music, or a bookshelf covered with pages from classic novels.
- Fold pages into adorable envelopes. Slip your holiday cards or eco-friendly wedding invitations inside.
- Create celestial decor by folding origami stars.
- Paper punches come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Punch your pages into compostable confetti.
- Add string to make a book page bunting or garland.
WHY YOU SHOULD GET RID OF OLD BOOKS RESPONSIBLY
Landfills are a major source of pollution.
Aside from their less than appealing aesthetics and smell, landfills produce toxins, leachate, and greenhouse gases, all of which negatively impact the quality of our air, soil, and water.
Due to lack of oxygen, even waste that typically decomposes quickly can take decades.
Recycling paper products like old books saves valuable landfill space and uses less energy than making non-recycled paper.
As big as the world seems, it’s important to remember that resources and physical space on Earth are finite.
According to the University of Michigan, one tree grown for paper production generates over 8,000 sheets of paper. Considering an average textbook is about 700 pages, that amounts to nearly 30,000,000 trees razed annually.
As of last year, 626,000 tons of paper were used to produce books in the United States alone.
Recycling or otherwise repurposing old books (and old Tupperware containers for that matter) is an easy way to reduce our personal impact on the planet.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON WHAT TO DO WITH OLD HARDCOVER BOOKS & PAPERBACK BOOKS
Striving towards more sustainable living encourages us to consume less stuff more thoughtfully.
Every day, innovators around the world make it easier to replace our “needs” with sustainable alternatives. But eliminating our “wants” is often easier said than done.
That doesn’t mean we can’t buy, own, and enjoy the things that we want.
It means that we should be aware of the impact those things have on the planet, and take steps to reduce our human footprint where we can.
With old or unwanted books, this means recycling, donating, or repurposing to keep them out of landfills for as long as possible.
Keep up that environmentally conscious energy. Now that you’ve made some space, check out the best books on sustainability.
When you’ve found a winner, go ahead and host that book swap!