Books and mortar | The Coast Halifax

Books and mortar

Stuck somewhere between garbage and recycling, unwanted books make up hundreds of tonnes of waste every year. When Dalhousie University libraries had to unload nearly 50,000 volumes, one man found a textbook solution.

Books and mortar
Claire Zimmerman
David Cameron sitting on his book bricks.

In the summer of 1989, an 138-page journal about antimicrobial science arrived at Dalhousie's health sciences library. It was the July issue, and it wore a red paper cover that bore the title in big white letters: Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Over the next months, the subsequent issues arrived, and librarians piled them on top of the July issue until a bookbinder took them and bound the July, August, September, October, November and December issues into a single, 1,200-page hardcover volume. He embossed their title on the bright-red spine, in gold letters, Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, Vol 33, July-Dec, 1989, and then tucked the hefty book back onto the shelf, between one journal called Antigens and another called Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek.

At that point, no one was thinking about what would happen to Antimicrobial Agents when the time came to throw it in the garbage.

The thought first came up when the librarians realized that they had a space issue.

After World War II, academic publishing boomed, but libraries held on to their age-old rule: don't get rid of anything. By the '80s, Dalhousie was moving books and journals into study spaces, basements, other buildings and anywhere else. No matter how valueless a book seemed, they kept it.

Occasionally, someone would use it. In 2003, Dalhousie researchers used an article from Antimicrobial Agents (called "purification, toxicity and antiendotoxin activity of polymyxin B nonapeptide") in a study on shark cartilage (called "immunomodulating principles from shark cartilage: isolation and biological assessment in vitro"). But, for the most part, it just sat on two linear inches of shelf space.

Around 2005, that changed.

When journal databases popped up online, getting rid of books finally became an option. Online collections are more comprehensive, more sustainable and more accessible.

The librarians looked through their collections to see what they could get rid of. When they came to Antimicrobial Agents, they asked themselves a few questions: Is it exceptionally popular? No. Is it an important piece of Canadian culture? No. Does it contain useful, high-quality images? No. Do any other libraries want it? No.

The librarians sent Antimicrobial Agents, Antigens and Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek to an offsite storage facility—a warehouse near Halifax Shopping Centre.

The shelves where Antimicrobial Agents had been stored were taken out. Study spaces were put in. The library cancelled their hard-copy subscriptions to thousands of journals, keeping only 200. All the while, journal usage went up; the online versions were more popular.

By 2010, Antimicrobial Agents was sitting in the warehouse with about 50,000 other books and journal volume—85 tonnes of literature. They cost more than $12,000 per year to store, and, as more books got put in storage, that number was climbing.

Dalhousie was ready to throw the books out altogether, but they couldn't figure out how.

Due to HRM's waste policy, Antimicrobial Agents was banned from the landfill, because its paper was recyclable. But it couldn't get recycled, because the cover was garbage.

The 50,000 books had no grave.

Nova Scotia has faced this problem many times. In 1996, the province committed to reducing the amount of garbage going to the landfill by 50 percent. There was a huge immediate drop as the city implemented new composting and recycling programs. Afterwards, progress had to be made by focusing on more difficult-to-divert materials. Books, and many other household materials, are composite waste: waste that's not garbage, recycling or compost, because it's some combination of the three.

Nova Scotians throw out 15,000 tonnes of diapers—infant and adult—every year: more than five percent of household garbage. They're made from fibre and plastic, so, theoretically, they don't have to go to the landfill, but they're difficult to break down.

Mattresses can be broken down into recyclable parts—fibre and metal—but that requires expensive machinery. Propane cylinders are made of valuable metal, filled with dangerous gas, so they're difficult too. Old shoes. Carpets. Clothes. Chip bags. Marine flares.

Nova Scotians go through a huge amount of used drywall, which contains fibre and valuable gypsum. Most of it ends up in landfill. The same is true with asphalt shingles, made of minerals and fibre, and wood finished with laminate or paint.

Construction and demolition businesses have to pay hefty fees to get rid of this waste. Every auto glass business in Nova Scotia pays upwards of $450 per month to have its broken glass taken away. It's made of two panes of glass that sandwich a silicone film, so it can't be recycled in Nova Scotia.

David Cameron is a builder from Lunenburg County. In 2008, he got curious about garbage.

"I didn't know where things were going, things that were getting thrown away," says Cameron, "and I decided that I should find out."

He went on a tour of an innovative recycling facility that rips up asphalt shingles and uses them in trail bedding or concrete. The facility also grinds up used drywall with used wood to make a bedding for dairy cows; the calcium sulfate in the gypsum prevents infections on their udders. He also ground up the drywall for gardening, to add to soil that is low in sulfur.

Inspired, Cameron started inventing. He designed a machine that removes excess gas from propane cylinders and crushes them, powered by the recovered propane, and installed it in a trailer for mobile operation.

He uses other recycled materials—like poplar veneer and auto glass—in his art, and he has ideas for the future, like using used foam packaging in construction. With enough overhead, he could buy a machine that would grind up huge amounts of auto glass, and separate the glass from the silicone. He would then sell the pulverized glass as a substitute for sand in septic beds or concrete, but it would be difficult.

Books are even more difficult.

Dalhousie deduced that it was impractical to rip the cover off of each book by hand. They thought about putting the books in a shipping container and sending them to China for recycling. That was too expensive.

They rented a giant shredder; a loud truck that had to be kept running while they fed it books and it pooped confetti. Dalhousie had almost 10,000 books shredded, and Antimicrobial Agents almost met its end, but a neighbouring office building filed a noise complaint and the city stopped the operation.

In desperation, Dalhousie facilities management put out a call to the community—how could they get rid of tens of thousands of valueless books?

Cameron heard the call. He knew right away what to do with them: build.

Cameron is a broad man with grey hair tied behind his head. He has a stern face that regularly breaks into a friendly smile. He belongs to a community group that is repurposing a disused elementary school near Mahone Bay. The group acquired the building in 2012, after it was replaced by an amalgamated school. Their vision was to turn it into a sustainable community centre called The Blockhouse School, with space for buying, selling, creating, gathering and teaching.

But the school was tens of thousands of dollars away from being useable. The furnace was old and inefficient. The building was barely insulated. And there weren't smoke detectors in most rooms.

Books are made of cellulose, which makes them a natural insulator, like wood or straw bale. They are also wide and flat, so they're stackable.

So Cameron asked Dalhousie for some of the books. They filled a tractor trailer with 10,000, including Antimicrobial Agents, and sent them to Cameron.

In the spring of 2012, Cameron got a group of volunteers to help him unload the 1,500 boxes of books from the trailer into the school.

They filled a classroom.

Last November, he held a course at The Blockhouse School, and built a wall out of books with a group of students. They built the book wall seven feet high and 20 feet long, lining an exterior wall in one of the classrooms, for insulation.

He used the project as a way to teach the students about vapour barriers, insulation value, permeability, stability, durability and how the clay finish can absorb moisture in moist weather and release it in dry weather, moderating humidity.

On a cold winter day, when you touch the old, uninsulated wall, it chills your fingers. When you lay your palm on the book wall, it is almost warm. Cameron insists that the books are a terrific building material. They couldn't bear weight, but they could provide wall structure and insulation. And they will last.

"Forever," says Cameron. "There's no reason—if it's done properly—there's no reason that it won't last. There are roman walls built with lime putty that are upwards of 2,000 years old."

In another room, Cameron ripped the cover off of Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, Vol 33, and a few hundred other books. He floored an office with all the paper blocks. On top of them, he screwed down the covers to make a colourful tiled pattern. Through the winter, the room was three degrees warmer than its neighbour, and the floor was soft and warm.

Last month, The Blockhouse School hosted an art exhibition, New Life for Old Books. They welcomed artists to take some of their thousands of books and make art with them. At the same time, Cameron built another book wall, insulating a root cellar. He left the wall unfinished for the exhibition.

On August 19, he stood next to the wall, many feet taller than him, in the school's temporary gallery. He smacked it, and it didn't budge.

"This wall is incredibly stable. 'Is that concrete?'" he quipped.

Cameron has other ideas, too, but he doesn't have to rush. Dalhousie has yet to get rid of its warehouse of books, and that's only a fraction of the issue. In the coming years, more academic libraries will face the same mammoth challenge. Mount Saint Vincent University currently expects that it may have to weed 100,000 volumes from its library over the next few years.

And hardcover books from libraries and households already make up hundreds of tonnes of waste every year.

Dalhousie has looked at plenty of solutions, including using the books as furnace fuel. Most likely, they’ll pay to have the covers removed from the books for standard recycling.

The wisest innovations may arise in the most unlikely places, like Cameron’s idea to use the books as infill for gardening. But, he points out, it’s not about any one solution, it’s about a different mindset.

"We're only recycling out of desperation," he says. "We generate too much stuff, we have no place to put it."

We need to make a leap, he says, "beyond seeing these things as redundant books, and see that what we're really talking about is any surplus resource that can be turned to good use. This is about transition."

The walls exemplify his philosophy. They both serve as an innovative use of a surplus waste resource and continue to do what they were originally made to do: teach.

Recycling 101

Curb bad habits with the skinny on blue bags, green bins and trash.

You're done with your coffee, and come to a line of waste bins. The lid is plastic, but is it recyclable plastic? The cup looks like it's paper recycling, but it might be garbage, and it's labelled "biodegradable." Here's how it works. Waste can be either organics, paper, blue bag (metals, glass, plastic and tetra-pak), garbage or household hazardous waste.

The city recently started accepting all plastics in blue bag recycling...but that doesn't quite mean all plastics. Films, styrofoam, coffee cup lids and other drink container lids are still garbage. Plastic wrap, shrink wrap, plastic bags (including ones that claim to be biodegradable), containers and bottles are recyclable.

There are some often-misplaced garbage items. All coffee cups, even if they say that they are biodegradable, are garbage (a good reason to use a travel mug). Pringles cans, chip bags, food wrappers, plastic utensils, frozen juice cans and clothing (that you can't donate to a good cause) are also garbage.

The compost is mostly for food waste. If you have food containers, drink cups or plastic utensils that are labelled "biodegradable," you can try composting them in your own garden, but they don't go in the green bin. Neither do newspaper, plastic bags or animal waste.

Most paper can simply be recycled. If it has personal information on it, don't throw it in the garbage. Shred it or black out your info, and recycle it. Two exceptions: boxboard (what Kleenex and cereal boxes are made of) is compost, and corrugated cardboard is in a league of its own—tie it up in a bundle and put it on the curb on recycling day.

A few other items have special repositories. Any pharmaceuticals can be brought into a pharmacy. They should not be dumped down the drain or thrown in the garbage. The pharmacy can also give you a waste container for sharps and needles. Cell phones can be returned to the store where purchased. There are lots of locations in the city to recycle batteries, listed at

HRM requires all properties to recycle and compost, but buildings with more than six units have to contract their own waste haulers. If your landlord isn't paying to have the trash taken out, you can call 311 and leave an anonymous tip with the city. They will contact your landlord to have composting and recycling implemented.

For more clarification, visit or call 311. --SLW