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 were 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 often are 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 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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What a great-comprehensive article! Bravo, Claire!


Bookmans does have six locations and still loves books.  But it's un-realistic to expect them to say afloat with just book sales.  I'm disappointed to hear this, I know for a fact that the Mesa location does everything they can to recycle and donate to keep books (and other merchandise) out of dumpsters...


I have worked in the book industry for 11 years and have a personal library of over 5,000 books at home so it is safe to say that I love books. However, all this article does is lament and whine about the fate of books while completely ignoring the underlying problems. With the rise of e-readers millions of people who formerly supported the physical book industry have now completely abandoned it. This has many effects on the book industry but most notably it forces mainstream bookstores to downsize (Barnes & Noble) or go out of business (Borders) and forces used bookstores (like Changing Hands or Bookmans – a company which this article slanders) to look for different ways to make money besides relying on falling book sales. Hence, Barnes & Noble has invested tons of money into it's Nook e-readers & has to close 200 stores in the next decade and stores like Bookmans have to act like they would “much rather would have your board games and your cat trinkets than your hardbacks”. Blaming the retailers for this situation is moronic. We live in a market economy which means if the demand isn't there, retailers have to change or die. Smart retailers like Barnes & Noble and Bookmans are trying their best to adapt to a world where selfish and short sighted people would rather download “books” (that they don't actually own, it's more like they are renting) than support a beautiful physical medium that has been with us since the dawn of civilization. If you don't like seeing books die than ditch your e-reader and visit your local bookstore.

Addendum : Mass Market Paperback books are actually designed by the publisher with the knowledge that they'll have their covers stripped off and they'll be recycled. They are the closest thing the publishing industry has to a “disposable” book. This is no secret to anyone who has ever worked in the book industry. Also the author's claim that the stripped book notice was“ often was ignored and eventually was phased out” is a blatant falsehood. No reputable bookseller would attempt to sell a stripped book. This is not to say that it hasn't happened before, but it is very uncommon. Also, the “stripped book” notice still appears in mass market paperbacks printed to this day. It has not been phased out.

Afterthought : While outside the scope of this article it is important to note that grocery stores and restaurants throw out millions of tons of food while 49 million Americans struggle with hunger. If booksellers are to be lambasted for throwing out books why do food merchants get a free pass for doing the same thing, especially since they have the potential for saving human lives?


They want to get rid of books because they are harder to control and rewrite the content of them.  If they are all online, they can change the language of them as they so desire.


What a remarkable essay!  And no comments as of yet?  You have described one of the most profound changes in our civilization to take place in our own time, the altered, possible reduced ability to vet and share information that is worth sharing.  

This article deserves a Pulitzer.