Nova Scotia Sustainability Center Gives New Life to Library Discards

Read the full story in Library Journal.

Dalhousie University’s library system was in a bind. Bound books, mostly out-of-date academic journals that had since been uploaded to online databases, had been piling up for years. At nearly 50,000 volumes, the library was running out of space.

“Any university that’s subscribing to a lot of academic journals, you’re challenged to house them, because they grow exponentially,” said Patrick Ellis, the director of Dalhousie’s health sciences library. “So space that looked copious in 1967 is jammed to the rafters in 1987.”

The library rented an off-site warehouse to house the journals. But they were seldom, if ever, asked for by students. The library was squeezing an already-tight budget for books that were no longer needed, so eventually, the librarians decided to let many of the books go.

The first thought was to shred them, and recycle the paper. However, this proved difficult, as the covers needed to be stripped manually before they could be shredded, and the journals needed to be fed very slowly into the shredder because the textbook paper, which contained clay, had a tendency to gum up the machine. Because the shredding truck needed to be running in order to operate the machine, there were also issues of fumes and noise.

“While trying to shred to be environmentally friendly, we were creating all these gasses and noise pollution,” said Nicola Embleton-Lake, the facilities planner who coordinated the project. “There were offices above and next to us, and it became an issue because it was really a nuisance to them.”

After complaints of noise, and with only a tiny fraction of the books shredded, Dalhousie gave up on that solution. The library considered using the books as fuel, but glues and other components they contained made that option environmentally hazardous.

Stumped, the university began to seek ideas.

When builder and inventor David Cameron heard of the problem, he began to think. His work has focused on finding creative ways to deal with waste. He’d previously come up with a way to remove traces of gas from propane tanks to declassify them as hazardous waste and instead crush and recycle the steel, while using the extracted propane as the energy source for the whole operation.

Cameron’s main project these days is the Blockhouse School, an abandoned schoolhouse that’s now a community center focused on sustainability. The school is old, and the nonprofit doesn’t have the money to to heat the minimally insulated building. So when he heard about the books, he hoped to solve two problems at once.

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