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  • Books smothered in packaging

    20th June, 2014


    Library books – first they need to reach the library from the publishers, then they might switch to other branches, be posted to a distance student, or lent via interlibrary loan interstate or overseas. Books are frequent travellers with significant ecological footprints: fuel for transport, pollution, and packaging (or getting damaged in the process and creating more waste with replacement copies).


    If you work in a library, the most obvious side-effect from bibliographic voyaging is all the packaging. Mounds of bubblewrap, paper or plastic padded envelopes, tough bags, polystyrene, potato-starch bubbles, air bags, plastic satchels, and enough cardboard boxes to build a fire-hazard castle. Most libraries stockpile the padded bags to reuse, but it can be challenging not to send a lot of items to landfill.


    Leaking paper padded bag

    Leaking paper blood


    I prefer to use paper padded bags (over bubblewrap/plastic padded bags or plastic satchels), because at the end of the lifecycle (being used once or several times), they can easily go in the paper/cardboard recycling in most council areas. Usually you need less stickytape and other paraphernalia to keep them secure during reuse – but sticky labels also create a lot of waste (ink, label, adhesive paper). The downside of the bags is that they are full of recycled newspaper padding, so if a trusty paper padded bag knight gets a spear in the face, he leaks everywhere including between the pages of the book he carries (gruesome paper blood, obviously). Perhaps the bag wants to be a book and is assimilating. I only recently realised that the paper padded bags are slightly heavier than plastic padded ones so they can cost more in postage and over time add up to a lot of unnecessary weight. I haven’t resolved this yet. A point in their favour is that books are less likely to get caught inside (less plastic friction).


    Bubblewrap padded bags can have limited potential reuse because the bubbles will get squashed. If there is a paper outer, you can separate this from the bubbles so that the paper is recycled, and the bubbles in the landfill bin. If you do this a few times you will not like these bags as the recycling process is labour-intensive and soul-destroying. The plain bubblewrap plastic padded bags which have no paper outer go straight in the landfill bin.


    Bubblewrap by itself (not within a bag/envelope structure) can be reused by people moving, or to decorate desks of other library staff. It can be challenging to get rid of it. Polystyrene is also difficult, but if you check your local recycling guide, some commercial waste management places will accept it for a fee.


    Some brands of air-filled bags are made of a plastic that breaks down in the compost, so I pop (quietly if it’s a shhh kind of library) and take them home to compost, but it’s meant to take 5 years and these timeframes are often determined with industrial composting facilities. Non-biodegradable air-filled bags can be popped and placed in the REDcycle plastic recycling bins at some supermarkets.


    Coles postal satchel twitter REDcycle discussion

    Good to go!


    Plastic satchels (like express satchels, courier branded ones) have been confirmed as acceptable for the REDcycle plastic recycling bins. I wish that the REDcycle bins included this on their list of accepted items. If you keep your squashable plastics from home, it is an illuminating exercise about how much waste you create, even if it can be made into something else.


    I was also pleased to confirm that mylar packets can also go in REDcycle bins (note that this is rare, because mylar doesn’t normally require disposal, only if it breaks and cannot be heat resealed back together, like a mylar packet for ephemera). I do wonder about the processes involved in making this squashable plastic into furniture – fumes? But I need to learn more about this.


    Postal satchel waste from the library

    12 weeks of plastic


    Tough bags, paper envelopes and cardboard boxes are easy enough to go straight in the paper/cardboard recycling.


    Potato-starch bubbles or pellets can go straight in the compost, I haven’t tested the pH impact. Apparently some people feed them to birds but I try not to do this. If you’re unsure of the materials, the pellets shrink in water so you can test one in the sink, turn on the tap and see if it becomes small and slimy.


    As a side note to packaging – you can send CDs/DVDs and their plastic outers to Gram Destruction (just make sure to check your organisation’s policy about this type of disposal, or include it in the weeding policies). The process is free, but do factor in the cost of postage as well as the fact that materials are once again clocking up the kilometres.


    REDcycle bin at Coles

    REDcycle bin


    Recycling options may be different in your state/territory, this is just what I’ve found works in Canberra, ACT. Our Territory and Municipal Services (TAMS) has an A-Z waste and recycling guide to help with responsible disposal. Check to see if your council has a guide, and if they will recycle the bubblewrap padded bags with plastic outer – sometimes they have a recycling symbol. If you’re interested in greening libraries, watch ALIA Sustainable Libraries Group on facebook and twitter for more on this subject.


    It can be frustrating to look at all the materials accumulated by book transport, but I try and focus on the benefits of getting the right book to the borrower, it could be for something crucial in their research or development that will change or green the world.



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    1. Catprint | Sonja Barfoed

      […] If you’re interested in greening libraries, watch ALIA Sustainable Libraries Group on facebook and twitter for more on this subject (also mentioned in my post on recycling book packaging). […]

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