To Reuse or Not to Reuse, That is the Question
Packing can include both new and old material.
By Karen Wright
Wow! When I put a call out to two different booksellers' organizations, IOBA and my ABS group, asking for comments and opinions about wrapping books in new or reused materials, I didn't know I was about to be barraged with a hurricane of replies. But, thanks very much to all of you who did reply, you helped get this article off the ground and though I couldn't use all the info you sent, I've tried to paraphrase and condense so you can see what the other folks are up to without falling asleep halfway through this tome.
What really started me thinking about reusing packaging material was when I got an updated notice from the former fearless leader of IOBA, Shawn Purcell, with this good advice about shipping: "State your rates clearly, don't make shipping a profit center, process the order quickly, include a professional receipt, use good butcher paper and bubble wrap, a box is almost always better than a mailer, become familiar with all the shipping options and protections, and send it out quickly."
One does not need to be a "fanatic environmentalist, it's just good sense" as one bookseller put it. It certainly makes sense to me to reuse and recycle. It costs less, it is good for the world, which is burying itself in trash, and frankly, I don't think that, except for the snootiest of collectors, anyone really gives a mule's tail whether or not the package is pretty as long as their books arrive in a timely manner, well packaged, and without dents and broken spines. But that's just me.
The packing materials I use are sometimes new, but more often reused materials that I collect hither and yon; i.e. boxes that have packets of cheese in them are almost always the size of one or two 8vos or 4tos, so I hit up the gal at the grocery store and she kindly does not slice the top off with her deadly box cutter, but opens them so they can be reused. Also, I live in a tourist town and there are lots of gift shops, bars, and antique stores. They often reuse their bubble wrap, but if not they know to call me and I'll come running. You know the adage - their trash, my treasure.
I only use clean stuff with minimal-to-no tape, and no odd odors or soiling. I often find big rolls of clear packing tape at flea markets, but be careful, they may be old and cracked or too thin and fragile to use so check them before you buy. I do buy bubble envelopes in various sizes for low range 8vos and small 4tos, but anything bigger goes in a box. Almost every book is wrapped in brown butcher paper, then either bagged or boxed, depending on the weight of the book, its fragility, its value, and how far it has to go. So far I have, in twenty years, only had one book returned damaged, and that was by a post office person who set it on something so sharp and so hard that it pierced a bubble wrapper and two layers of brown paper, the hardback cover, and about thirty pages of text. They must have been practicing sword-fighting tricks in the back room and stabbed it with a rapier, for heaven's sake! Oh, and I insure anything over $50.00, just in case. Many booksellers recommend getting delivery confirmation. I don't always; again it depends on where it is going and the price of the book.
So, anyway, that's how I do things, but what about other folks?
I started with one of the big boys. I live near the Alibris warehouse in Nevada. They're not usually too happy to see an email from me. But I emailed Peter Skerritt at Alibris Client Services with a question. I've toured their huge facility. They have dozens of folks opening envelops and boxes and I wanted to know why they couldn't open the package, make sure that it is the correct book in the proper condition, and then slap their label on it and reseal it instead of tossing thousands of boxes, bubble wrappers and other materials in the recycle bins.
He said he spoke to one of the shipping people and they explained that "…although the packaging material that we discard after opening those packages is recycled, we do not use the same package to re-send the order on to the customer. There are several reasons for this, and it starts with the opening process. This can be a furiously fast process when there are six cages of packages, each containing several thousand packages and everything has to be opened, inspected, then placed in the line to be checked in as "received". I've seen as many as fifteen cages in a day, so there's no time to be too gentle with a package when opening it. They're careful not to damage the contents, but the packaging is not an important item. And the packaging that we use is completely different than the material that most sellers use and our own label and logo is affixed to our packages shipping from the Distribution Center. It's all standardized there."
To Reuse or Not to Reuse, That is the Question
It's hard to tell whether bubblewrap is new or used.
The other side of that is that Dustin Holland who is the VP for Acquisitions of Better World Books told me that in 2009, "We sold more than 4 million books. Books that are not donated or sold are diverted to recycling and we conduct an environmental audit of our recyclers. We recycle or reuse (up to 4 times) all inbound shipping material." But then, their Mission Statement on their website says: "Social and environmental responsibility is at the core of our business. You could say it's in our DNA," so we would expect them to do this, and I, for one, applaud it.
Jay Santini from Ballyhoo Books reuses packing materials, "…though I sort of wish I didn't have to. As others have mentioned, I like my packaging to be as spiffy as possible. But when I need to pinch my pennies and save some money on materials, I will definitely "leverage" an old box or bubble wrap, as long as they are still in decent shape.”
Chris Volk from Bookfever in California says she thinks some of the division between 'reuse and don't reuse' is not so much cosmetics as availability. "We are in a rural area with no trash pickup - we recycle all we can - but we mostly use new packing material for shipping books. Part of this is the impression we want to create, but part of it is practical, we don't get in enough single book boxes to even begin to cover our needs - and we have no nearby source of such material.
Though not exactly to do with packing, Chris offers a unique free gift wrapping. "This year we started offering customers a choice between reusable cloth and traditional paper - and not a single customer chose paper! Since the cloth is already being "re-used" (they started out as fabric samples, mostly edged,) it is doubly effective."
Cen Wells of Ish Kabibble Books in Hughesville, Maryland said "We don't, per se, use recycled materials. I would guess that 98% of our books are shipped using new boxes or envelopes and new, clean packing material." She explained that one of the reasons is that, like Chris Volk, they are in a rural area where it's hard to find used boxes. She also said 'dumpster diving' would be a waste of time, and that she feels her customers deserve clean materials. Usually they only use old boxes for shipments to Alibris.
Maggie Gammon of Commonplace Books in Princeton, Kentucky says, "I recycle as much as possible… reusing clean boxes, wrapping paper, air pillows, bubble wrap, and especially polystyrene peanuts for my collectible glass sideline. I know my small effort isn't going to solve the world's landfill problems, but I at least do what I can to reduce my contribution as much as possible."
A word from Arizona; Bob Maddox from Squid Ink Books in Tucson says; "I recycle when it is feasible to do so without appearing unprofessional. Cardboard boxes must be in quite good shape and with labels that can easily be covered over or left in place - otherwise these go into our local recycling bin for pickup. Bubble wrap is recycled as long as it can be un-taped without tearing - if it is torn, I try to save it for other shipping or packing needs."
Ted Kruse is the Associate Director for Technical Services and Budget at the University of Baltimore, so he's into "thriftiness." He says they try to salvage as much packing material as possible from the acquisitions group. They like unglued boxes that can be refolded inside out because they provide a clean surface for mailing labels and give the first impression of new materials.
To Reuse or Not to Reuse, That is the Question
Boxes can be good for more than one trip.
He said they stopped using plastic-lined mailer envelopes which are NOT recyclable by the customer. They are now using U-line's single face rolls of cohesive corrugated wrap which sticks to itself and not to the book - but, not for thick books. It does not provide enough stiffness for thin paperbacks but it handles everything else.
"We have found the wrap cost competitive with plastic lined envelopes. In our view, packaging materials should be both made from recycled materials and be recyclable by the customer."
A comment on bubble mailers; When I receive one, I open it up, roll it inside-out and tape it into a roll, then use it to pad books that are loose in a box.
David Prendergast of Stick Figure Books had a different take on the subject. "I don't personally subscribe to the recycling approach," he said, "I believe that the packaging that surrounds a book, starting with the covers and the dust jackets (if applicable) is an important part of the buyer's experience." He notes that he is trying to target or impress people who appreciate or respond to quality packaging. "Ultimately though, I believe that it's OUR values that largely drive this. I use new and better quality packaging because it's how I want to do things. I wouldn't enjoy packing books in re-used materials. For others, the savings and the social reward of recycling are much more important. There's clearly room for both approaches."
Howard Prouty from ReadInk in Los Angeles had a comment about targeting audiences. He felt that in doing so, one "…ascribed far more importance to who you might (or might not) be 'impressing' with a new-packaging-only approach, and to what degree." He reminds us that the "target audience" for all used and rare booksellers "is made up largely of people who actually do buy used and rare books, not new books from Barnes and Noble. Thus, they probably are not going to be seriously put off by the fact that the wrapping material in which their book arrives is not brand-spanking new." To him the important thing "…in EVERY instance is to package and send the book in such a manner that it will get to the customer undamaged."
Ezra Tishman of Aardvark Books in Eugene, Oregon notes; "I purchase one or two big bags of recycled peanuts each year from a local UPS store (you have to ask specifically for them) and every time we receive parcels with these included, we just add them to the barrel. Because I run a busy search service I have occasion to purchase from a great many dealers and can't help but notice how each dealer packages books. But recycle or not, most provide me with ample packaging materials which are reused as often as possible. Addresses on bubble bags are crossed out and used as inner bags. Bubble wrap that can be separated from its packing tape goes right back into boxes as extra protection. When we send out higher-end books, we often use new, lightly taped bubble mailers in combination with rolled corrugated cardboard called a- or b-fluting, inside proper cardboard boxes, with a small note attached: "Feel free to re-use these materials".
Rosemary Elder at Roses Are Read Books asked a question: "How would cohesive corrugated wrap compare to Multi D book folders for quality and ease of use?" I have not used either, so if any of you have information about that please send her a quick email on the subject at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Bennett from Primary Source Books in Tacoma, Washington, re-uses packing materials as much as he can. "I prefer to use new materials for packing higher-end books, but employ used materials for the lower end, if they are clean, not tape-coated and, in the case of boxes, structurally sound."
Ogden and Peggy Williams own Pine Tree Books. She tells me; "We have been using recycled materials for our book packaging for a few years. In our town (Cape Elizabeth, Maine) we have a refuse/recycle center. People toss their cardboard boxes into trailers. I bring home clean boxes with little or no lettering of all different sizes. We put a sign up inside the "swap shop" in a designated area inviting people to drop off their peanuts and bubble wrap. It took a little time for this to take off but now residents are doing it regularly. We are delighted to be doing this and it also keeps our expenses down, which in turn allows us to give our customers a better rate."
To Reuse or Not to Reuse, That is the Question
The Whitefish Bay Friends of the Library in Wisconsin use recycled packing materials for two reasons. "First, it is the Earth friendly approach. I like the idea that when I re-use packing materials I am getting one more use out of a piece of cardboard, Styrofoam peanut, or balloon bag before it goes into recycling or to a landfill. And secondly, used, recycled packaging materials keep my cost of operations down…and more money from book sales can go back into the library. I have noted numerous times in the feedback comments that customers appreciated how well items were packaged."
Ralph at Dan River Books in Virginia also uses high quality reusable packing materials. These are generally boxes, Styrofoam noodles, and cardboard. This seems particularly appropriate, given that one of our specialties is natural history, ecology, and environmental studies. We have a little slip of paper that we place in the box titled "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." It informs the buyer that we use high quality reusable material and the slip has check boxes that indicate what has been used in the shipment. We place a high value on packing our shipments very, very well and we screen these materials carefully to insure high
At Terrace Horticultural Books in St. Paul, Minnesota, says Kent Petterson, "we have thought since the beginning that we were recyclers of books and packing materials. We sometimes refer to ourselves as a "green" business, but lately at least in my circle, green has become so ubiquitous and in some cases co-opted, it has become a bit tedious. Of course the less expensive used books are our primary recycled item. We also have sought to reuse packing materials as much as possible."
George Cubanski from Rarities, etc. says; "I recycle packing peanuts and bubble wrap, but I don't reuse old boxes because it sends a poor message to the customer, especially if you are selling books at $100 and more (I was startled to hear from another well-established seller that he used the meat boxes scavenged from the deli next door to his store!).
Denise Choppin, Owner of Turtle Creek Books in Canada liked my idea of the stamp, but she wondered if wrinkled paper was offensive to the customer. She tells me that she recycles everything; "bubble wrap, cardboard, wrapping. Cardboard inserts can be used to make boxes or slip cases and we turn used priority boxes inside out to use again. To fill boxes that may be a bit big we use recycled Styrofoam peanuts if available, shredded material or newsprint." They also use a solar power source for the lighting in the book repair/binding shop as part of their conservation efforts. "In these times and with the emphasis on going green, we truly believe in this. In fact, other than manila envelopes and tape, we have not purchased ANY new packaging materials in the last EIGHT years.
“Stiffeners, padding, etc. are always recycled. Books occasionally arrive here wrapped in newspaper. We draw the line there: even the ink on The Times of London smudges and rubs off on books. As for warehouse operations such as the big A, who discard booksellers' packaging so they can wrap the book anew in more cardboard and paper and tape, the less said about them the better. Maybe the world-famous detective, Mr. Monk, could explain their attitude."
One California bookseller felt that "the distinction between re-use and recycle is important. Re-using is much better, but there are times when the cardboard just gets too tired, and then it is time to recycle. And wrapping paper usually can't be re-used, but can also be recycled."
Pat Saine at Blue Plate Books tells this story. "Three years ago, we moved south from New Hampshire to Virginia for my wife's career. I took the opportunity to leave my career and start a second hand bookstore. When we moved, I saved all of my household packing material - bubble wrap, boxes, and cardboard - and have been using it to mail books. Of course, in addition to these items, there was the packing from the new appliances we needed to purchase. All told, these items have lasted me my first 15 months in business. I'm just now starting to think about looking for good places to replenish my recycled packing supplies."
To Reuse or Not to Reuse, That is the Question
Well, heck, I've heard the word peanuts or packing noodles fairly often during my research of this article, so I think I'll just put in my two cents on those damn things. One bookseller told me that they reuse any "peanuts" or whatever folks call them. "I don't see how anyone would know if they're new or pre-used," she said. I don't care what anyone else thinks about them. I hate them. First, you open a box and the peanuts fly out into the room and stick to your hair, then they drop onto the carpet and stick to that. The slightest breeze from a fan or heater drives them onto the bookshelves, behind every hidey hole in the shipping room, and pretty soon the cat and dog are playing polo with them.
Sara Armstrong, a bookseller from Cedarville, CA, mirrored that: "I don't use a lot of those foam peanuts, just reuse them (NEVER leave the box open if you have cats!)."
Sara also had a couple of other ideas that she shared and I'm going to paraphrase here. She puts every book into a plastic bag and tapes it shut, leaving little folded pointy ends so people can peel it off easily. She doesn't want the book to get wet. Recently a man in England told her that his package had gotten wet, but the book inside was dry and safe. Thus, she didn't have to refund the price of a book and just eat the postage and the ABE fees, too.
Heidi Conglaton begins her packing by wrapping all books in new white tissue paper. She uses boxes twice, unless it's an expensive item. She also uses brown tape which covers a lot of unsightly stuff on used boxes. "We reuse bubble wrap, and again, it would be hard to tell if it's been used before." They also reuse air pillows. If they're popped they're no good, but if not she doesn't see how anyone would know if they were new or pre-used. "We reuse any newsprint (not printed newspaper) we get. Again, once it's crumpled up and in a box who would know if it's been crumpled more than once? We reuse blocks of Styrofoam for lining the boxes when they're the right size. We also cut this stuff down to size (old breadknife works best)."
What I heard most often from most of my colleagues is "I recycle or reuse materials as much as I can."
That gladdens my heart and it only makes sense to me that one save oneself a great deal of money, save Mother Earth a great deal of mess, and save the limited resources of the planet. My grandmother recycled because she was the product of two world wars and they had to reuse and recycle then. She taught me when I was just a pup and I've been doing it myself for more than fifty years - I won't say how many more. I'm going to end with something Sara Armstrong said: Her Golden Rule of Packaging; "I package books as well as I hope people will package the books I buy," or package for others as you would have others package for you!