Bound for Recycling

Features - Paper Recycling Supplement

A pilot project looks at the barriers to textbook recycling and offers tips for success.

December 5, 2013

In late 2010, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) was awarded a generous grant from the McGraw-Hill Cos. to develop and conduct a pilot textbook recycling and research project that would benefit McGraw-Hill’s sustainability commitment NewPage Corp.’s desire to increase recovered fiber in the U.S. as well as the NWF’s environmental education and sustainability programs, Eco- Schools USA and Campus Ecology.


For the purposes of this project, we focused on the K-12 educational sector, the higher education sector and book publishers. The intent of our report is to highlight the life cycle of textbooks, from production through disposal, and to provide needed information and recommendations to interested sectors on how they might establish a textbook recycling program at their school, university or in their community.


What we found through our research was rather staggering. More than 4.3 billion books are produced annually in the U.S. for a variety of sectors. Unfortunately, many books—after they have reached the end of their useful lives—end up in landfills.

To address this, the NWF, McGraw-Hill and NewPage Corp. entered into a collaborative project to study textbook recycling in the U.S., pilot a recycling project and develop best practices to increase textbook recycling. This report, “A Research Study on Textbook Recycling in America: Recommendations for Proper Disposal and Repurposing at the End of a Textbook’s Useful Life,” available online at, is based on what currently happens to textbooks at the end of their useful lives. While the original assumption was that recycling books would be challenging, the research indicates that it requires discipline, structure, organization, an outlet and method for disposal and processing of books and a change in behavior when it comes to educating the public.

With more than 150,000 K-12 schools and 4,100 higher education institutions, the market for educational textbooks is significant. Our research showed that K-12 schools want to recycle textbooks but do not have enough information on how to institute a recycling program. And, for higher education institutions, many have paper recycling programs, but textbooks are not included in their mix. Most community recycling programs tend to focus on materials that are commonly recycled, such as copy paper, aluminum and steel cans, plastics and glass. Additionally, single-stream recycling is being adopted by an increasing number of American communities with mandates to increase diversion rates.


Education Best Practices

The key step in the development of any recycling program is the education of all the potential participants. Educational institutions interested in establishing a book recycling program need to educate not only the students, faculty, book stores, libraries, community neighbors, building and facilities staff, but the team that is organizing these efforts [also] must be educated about setting achievable goals and implementing successful processes.

Some suggested best practices to ensure that the staff, program team, students and interested parties are educated about the recycling process include:

  • Assign or elect a point person for the book recycling program.
  • Work with your school’s facility manager or school district’s operational manager to find out what materials are currently being recycled at the school and which company or companies handles the waste hauling or recycling.
  • Investigate whether the current waste hauler/recycler can accept hardcover or softcover books in the waste stream.
  • If the current waste hauler/recycler cannot accept books in its waste stream, review National Wildlife Federation’s online resources to find other companies that can assist you.
  • Contact the local municipal recycling facility and request a meeting to discuss options for recycling books.
  • Contact your town/municipality’s recycling coordinator to see if there is an opportunity to expand this event throughout the community.

– An edited excerpt from “A Research Study on Textbook Recycling in America: Recommendations for Proper Disposal and Repurposing at the End of a Textbook’s Useful Life”



By surveying K-12 schools, we found that more than 57 percent participate in book donation or “give away” programs and that 37 percent said they store obsolete textbooks because they are unsure what to do with them from a disposal standpoint. By surveying higher education institutions, we found more than 36 percent said they did recycle both hardbound and softbound textbooks, but 26 percent said they recycled neither.

Our team also spent a considerable amount of time researching the life cycle of textbooks. What we found is that there is significant fragmentation and diversity in the ways that educational institutions collect and process textbooks for recycling. To help alleviate that, we provided guidelines and best practices for educational institutions that we hoped would help them to facilitate the recovery of textbooks instead of landfilling them. These guidelines include education; establishment of a recycling mission, goals and objectives; communication; planning; facilitation; implementation; and evaluation.

After all, an unusable or unwanted book is a terrible thing to waste.


Implementation Best Practices

Implementing a book recycling program is where the “rubber hits the road.” This is where the efforts you’ve expended through the education, communication, planning and facilitation processes bear fruit. This is also where you need to have the best handle on program logistics and partner relationships.

Suggested best practices for implementation include:

  • Use the recycling company with which the school or organization already works.
  • Contact the recycler to see if it can pick up and process books for recycling. If not, research other recycling companies at or at
  • Understand the economics involved in a recycling program and the factors that can either make a program economically feasible or not. These economic factors can include transportation costs, processing materials (i.e., Gaylord pallets or cartons), staffing costs, market value or price of recovered fiber, etc.
  • Ensure that notices have gone out to school faculty, students, parents and community members well in advance and again the week before the event.
  • Set out bins in heavily trafficked areas of the school or in a common area that has been agreed upon beforehand.

– An edited excerpt from “A Research Study on Textbook Recycling in America: Recommendations for Proper Disposal and Repurposing at the End of a Textbook’s Useful Life”



The author is senior director of Eco-Schools USA, a program of the National Wildlife Federation. Email her at