Old books go to waste – but that’s a good thing
October 13, 2007
I left my townhome in the Willits subdivision at 6:10 on a September evening and headed for the Basalt Regional Library. On the back porch of the library 70 cartons half-filled with books awaited their fate. Donated by citizens or culled from the library shelves, they were damaged or out-of-date, the books had remained unsold at the Basalt River Days’ book sale in mid-August. Schools and individuals had been notified they were free, and a few had been rescued. But the rest silently soaked up whatever page-curling sun and cover-swelling moisture the elements dealt them.Not so long ago, the land where the library now stands was marshy, and these books might have slowly sunk into the mix of water, bugs and roots.Something similar was in store for them tonight.No one likes to see a book destroyed. Most of us can kill a weed or a mosquito, but a book carries a charge for a human. Throwing one out is like hurting a friend.The U.S. publishing industry expects to sell 3 billion of these “friends” next year. Billions of books hitting the market year after year and yet we don’t want to destroy any of them? Reason tells us a large number of books must hit the dust annually. Valley librarians know that.So Hans Ayers, a friend who works at West Glenwood’s Caca Loco composting site, met me at the library with his van. The books on the library porch were about to be destroyed and reborn again – as fertilizer. Moving them from the porch to the van was the first step in their voyage into Caca Loco’s “soup”: the batter of paper, wood chips and sanitation waste that, properly mixed, drained, steamed and strained, becomes the fertilizer that feeds many of our valley’s trees and plants.As the sun sank behind the mountains, Hans and I worked, me consolidating the 800 or so books in 30 of the cartons and Hans piling the heavy boxes onto his dolly to wheel across the grass to his van. At first I rescued two paperbacks, but pretty soon I no longer cared if I was holding a literary masterpiece or a piece of schlock. If it fit in the box, it was a good book.
By the time darkness fell Hans had fit all 30 cartons of books into the back of his van. He promised I could visit the Caca Loco site to witness the dirty deed early the following week.A few days later, I heard from Hans. I took a copy of my most recently published novel, scrawled a “To future writers,” on the title page, signed my name and the date and, with my camera, notepad and pen, headed downvalley to Glenwood Springs.The Caca Loco compost site at the South Canyon landfill is a busy and smelly place nestled among empty, sweet-smelling hills. Dust swirls in the air. Trucks beep as they back up to dump their loads of wood, cardboard and other paper waste: food packaging, milk cartons, tissues, shredded paper and magazines. (I regularly rescue half our household trash and dump it in the Caca Loco compost bin at the Glenwood Springs Recycling Center.) I parked my Prius and, after being greeted by Hans and and his boss, Jim Duke, climbed a dirt road to watch the alchemical activity. Big Hans on a steam shovel and wiry Jim on a bulldozer were scooping and pushing sludge and paper around to make room for the constant stream of trucks. When a B&R Septic and Rooter Services truck arrived, I watched the driver back up to the stinky pond nearby. He walked to the rear of the tank truck and unplugged a spigot. A stream of liquid first dribbled and then gushed out in an arc. It was blackish-brown and mottled: anathema to humans, chocolate to microbes.I tossed my freshly autographed book into the stream. It sank pretty readily, and by the time I snapped a picture was barely visible.How did I feel, consigning something I’d worked on for years, written and rewritten, agonized over, sent off, received rejections for and generally identified with, into a pile of poop? Well, annoyed that it sank so fast, for one thing. Then saddened that this disappearing book was not much different from most of my books that vanish into the outside world and are never heard from again. This one, I thought, would at least nourish a plant, a deer, a budding writer.After that, the actual dumping of the library books and the spewing of more sanitation waste over them seemed anticlimactic. Hans told me the next step would be layering wood chips and other paper on top of the soaked books, as in a giant lasagna. The mixture would drain for a while, then steam in the heat zone for the EPA’s required minimum of 90 days, and finally, after about six months, be ready to be filtered and sold to local garden supply and landscaping firms.I left then. It felt good to be aware of the regeneration of things and know that the many books printed in the United States every year can be read, loved, reread and then turned into fertilizer. Sort of like us.Ann MacLeod is a resident of Basalt; her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Web site http://www.gogreenbasalt.org, created by the environmental group Go Green Basalt, has recycling and composting information for the entire valley.