[Header = The used book eco-dilemma]

Kids may be reading less and watching more TV these days, but there are still more than a bilion books sold annually in the United States. The Green Press Initiative reports that the book publishing industry makes quick use of 25 million trees each year -- the equivalent of 25,000 acres of forest. So what happens to all those old books when it's time for us to clear out shelf space for our summer paperbacks? What do you do with them?

Hundreds of thousands of used books are donated to libraries, bookstores and charities each year, but these organizations won't take just any old romance novel you have lying around: Accepted books have to be in good condition and at least somewhat in demand. The same generally holds true if you want to sell your pre-read tomes online through auciton sites like eBay or commnities like craigslist; used-book dealers who sell through online stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble deduct value for bent pages, sun-faded covers, or nearly invisible price tag residue. Books showing signs of water damage or mold usually have no value (and can in fact be harmful, as mold can trigger allergies). The American Library Association leaves the decision to librarians whether to keep, sell or discard donated books -- and often the librarians opt to toss them.

To make matters worse, many municipal recycling programs won't accept books (particularily the hard-bound ones). Some cities do accept hardcovers as recyclable paper but require that the covers be torn off and trashed separately -- and people discarding boxes of old books likely don't have the time (not to mention the hand strength).

So if you can't give them away and you can't recycle them, it might just be time to embark on an art project. Plenty shows you some crafty ways to keep your old books out of the trash.

[HEADER = Literary luggage]

Literary luggage
Use an old book to make a purse. Read the instructions first, then select materials according to your preferences for color and style.

You'll need:

  • A used hardcover book (moldy or water-damaged pages okay)
  • An article of used clothing
  • A fine-point marker
  • Glue
  • A craft knife
  • Beads or ribbons (optional)

  1. Cut away the book’s pages with the craft knife. Recycle the pages. Lay the open book cover over the used clothing. Use the marker to draw a line 1⁄4 inch beyond the cover’s edges on all sides. Cut the fabric along the line.
  2. Place the fabric over the outside of the book cover, then fold and glue the extra 1⁄4 inch of material to the inside of the cover.
  3. After the glue has dried, stand the book upright with the outside of the cover facing you. Measure the space at the top of the book where the pages used to be; this will be the side of your new purse. Cut two pieces (one for each side) of fabric to this size, adding 1⁄4 inch to each side. Fold edges in and glue one piece to the top of the book and one piece to the bottom of the book.
  4. If it’s a clutch-style purse you want, you’re done! If you want to attach handles, wait until the glue has dried, then place the book on its spine. Glue or sew small loops of fabric to the material on the inside of the purse, two loops per side, spaced an equal distance apart. Once glue dries, string ribbons or an old necklace through the loops to create your handles.

[HEADER = Scrapped book]

Scrapped book
The idea is to transform an old tome into your own scrapbook, sketchbook or photo album — or a great gift for a friend. Remove what you don’t like and add your own artwork, which can include drawings, paintings, poems or small objects.

You'll need:

  • A used book with heavy pages
  • A craft knife
  • Glue
  • Any decorative materials (acrylic or watercolor paints, photographs, dried flowers, etc.)

  1. Decide on a theme for your work of art, and choose a book with complementary subject matter. For example, try using a children’s book for photos of your baby or an old atlas for vacation souvenirs. You don’t need to decorate each page; remove and recycle pages as needed.
  2. Wherever you want to decorate, cover the book’s text or illustrations with paint, or glue blank paper over the pages. Allow some of the book’s original print to peek through around the edges and in between your additions.
  3. If you want to include three-dimensional objects like beads or dried flowers, create little nests for them by cutting a box several pages deep with the craft knife. Glue the page edges together to ensure that your nests stay put, and glue the objects into the nests.

[HEADER = Storied stash box]

Storied stash box
Keep your top-secret stuff in a classic hollowed-out book, either stealthily shelved or proudly displayed.

You'll need:
  • A used hardcover book
  • A pen
  • Glue
  • A craft knife
  • A ruler
  • An article of used clothing

  1. On the first page of the book, measure and draw an even rectangle (you’ll cut around this line to create the inside of the box). For a jewelry or cash box, leave a 1-inch border around the edges of your rectangle. Or customize the opening for an object such as a TV remote: Place the object on the first page and trace a line around it (leaving a little breathing room at the edges).
  2. Hold the book steady and use the craft knife to cut around your line, several pages deep. Remove the cutout and trace the opening with the craft knife again. Repeat the process until the hole is deep enough to store the desired object.
  3. Glue the pages together to form a solid block. When the glue is dry, cut a piece of the used clothing to cover the inside of the box, then glue the fabric down.

[HEADER = Pass it on]

Pass it on
If your books are in relatively good physical condition, someone else may want them. The following organizations will help you give new life to your unwanted lit:

  • Your local library: They may not put your old books on their shelves, but many public libraries use proceeds from the sale of used books to fund operating expenses (budget cuts often make these sales a necessity). Don’t worry if your books aren’t in pristine condition. Inscriptions and a few handwritten notes are okay, but books with severe damage—did you drop it in the bathtub or spill coffee on it?—aren’t. (To find your local library, go to lists.webjunction.org/libweb)
  • Bookcrossing: This global community of nearly half a million book lovers gives people a chance to track their used books as they pass from reader to reader. Members leave books in public places around the country and abroad—parks, coffee houses, train stations—for anyone to pick up, enjoy, and deposit in another likely spot. Books are “tagged” with a sticker that asks each new reader to visit BookCrossing’s Web site and let the original owner know it was picked up. Register a book with the program; when someone takes it, BookCrossing will notify you by email. (bookcrossing.com)
  • Eco Encore: This Seattle-based environmental group turns donated books into cash, selling them on its own eBay store and sending the proceeds to environmental groups. Founder Jesse Putman has this tip for potential donors: “It may seem counter-intuitive, but usually the lesser-known titles sell best.” (ecoencore.org)
  • Reader to Reader: This group sends donated children’s books to needy schools around the United States. To date, the Massachusetts-based organization has shipped 350,000 books to over 300 schools. (readertoreader.org)
  • SAFE: English-language textbooks published within the last 10 years are distributed to colleges in Sudan, where they’re used in language classes. Each year, the group collects and ships roughly 12,000 donated books. (sudan-safe.org)
  • The American Library Association: The group does not accept donated books for libraries, but it does maintain a list of nationwide book-donation programs. (ala.org)
Story by Kelly Pucci. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in May 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.

What to do with old books
How to deal with used books that can't be recycled: Turn them into an art project!