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Books in blue bins are a bad look

Examining the importance of a student campaign that’s striving to save books and improve sustainability on campus
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(From left to right) Singh, Bitsakakis, Stark, Greenberg, and Medd want to save books on campus. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
(From left to right) Singh, Bitsakakis, Stark, Greenberg, and Medd want to save books on campus. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Books have a special place in my heart, especially as a student. They are more than just pieces of paper  they are vehicles for knowledge, creativity, and truth.

So last month, when a photo of hundreds of books in blue bins appeared on one of the U of T meme pages, I couldn’t believe that discarding books was something that would happen at our university. The books could be donated to charities, local libraries, public schools or literally, as the meme suggested, “anything other than throwing away hundreds of books for no discernible reason.”

Please come to Russel and Spadina and help us save these books!!

Posted by Aliki Bitsakakis on Friday, October 19, 2018


I reached out to Aliki Bitsakakis, the student who posted the photo, and she recounted the frantic day when she came across the books.

The administrative office informed Bitsakakis that they were “undesirable” leftovers from the University College Book Sale. Told that they had until the end of the day Friday to take the books if they wanted them, Bitsakakis, along with other students, including Marley Greenberg, Robin Medd, Grusha Singh, and Jaylen Stark, “flew into panic mode” to save the books from being discarded.

They began sharing the story on social media to find homes for the books, urging students to go to the alley near Russell Street and Spadina Avenue where the books had been transported for recycling collection. Second Life, an organization that collects and donates books, was contacted and picked up about half of them. The students transported the remainder to the lounge in Sidney Smith Hall.

Remarkably, Bitsakakis estimates that the group saved about 1,000 books overall from destruction. But she says it “shouldn’t have been something we had to do.” She described the experience, though successful, as upsetting, as reading and learning are integral to students’ lives. It is difficult to imagine why these books were deemed undesirable in the first place. All the books were in good condition and some contained personal notes from past readers. One had a letter from the author, expressing thanks for a positive review.

To understand the situation, Bitsakakis and Stark returned to the UC administrative office and were put into contact with Deborah Tam, chair of the UC Book Sale, who confirmed that she had requested the recycling receptacles to dispose of the books. Tam did not respond to my request for comment.

Tam’s email reply to Bitsakakis says that every year the book sale faces the issues of excess books and limited storage space. This year, over 250 boxes of books were left over after the sale, and the organizers were given a single day to vacate UC’s Laidlaw Library.

“The other colleges that have sales, Trinity, Victoria and St. Mike’s, all have similar issues, of leftover books, that we do,” Tam wrote to Bitsakakis, “none of us like to see books sent to recycling if there are homes for them.”

The problem with this answer is that there were homes for the books the UC sale discarded. After Bitsakakis and her friends brought them to Sidney Smith, students were ecstatic to get them for free. There’s really no excuse for recycling books in good condition  and the Victoria College and Trinity College book sales both recognize this. Both sales have explicit policies to donate excess books.

“All of our leftover books find good homes through various local and international initiatives,” Victoria College Book Sale Chair Nancy Ruhnke wrote. “Every year, we send books to a library programme in the Philippines, and for a number of years, books were sent to help build a Canadian library centre in China… No good book is ever wasted!”

Nancy Graham, President of Trinity College Friends of the Library, explained that the Trinity College Book Sale has “a number of partners, including Second Life Books and other charities” to “ensure that as many books as possible stay out of landfills and recycling centres, and are instead placed into the hands of new readers.”

A troubling pattern

Given the practices at Victoria College and Trinity College, I wanted to believe that the UC Book Sale was simply careless in this instance. But Bitsakakis identified red flags that point to the concerning possibility that discarding books is a regular phenomenon at U of T. The university staff responsible for transporting the receptacles told her that books being thrown away “happens all the time.”

The day she went to rescue the books, a man came to the alley and looked through the bins, sharing with Bitsakakis that he regularly comes to this spot to get books for his wife. Waste Management Supervisor and Recycling Coordinator Reno Strano confirmed that people do sort through the recycling for books, and he lets them do so, “as long as they don’t create trouble.” If people are looking through the recycling for these books, clearly they still have value and could be donated.

The problem, Strano said, is that while Waste Management has to handle “a steady stream of books,” including from libraries, it is “pressed for space and resources.” For these reasons, Strano doesn’t always have the chance to donate books to local organizations. As long as the books are sent to recycling centres and not landfills, disposing of them actually counts as waste diversion under U of T’s definition.

Some of the books sent to the waste management department are placed in the university’s Swap Shop, where students and faculty can purchase discounted books and furniture. All proceeds go to the United Way.

I met with Strano over reading week for a tour. Descending a narrow staircase into the dark, hot, and dusty basement of the South Borden Building, I surveyed the shop and the books that filled it, stacked in piles, on bookshelves, and in blue bins.

Novels, non-fiction, biographies, textbooks  the little-known shop had just about every type of book. It’s a good deal for books, at $1 for as many as you can carry, but it’s open to U of T students just once a week, and for only two hours. Books that are not picked up from the shop are recycled. It’s a shame to throw books away, Strano said, but he simply doesn’t have the resources to do otherwise.

I was disappointed with what my tour had revealed. Sending books to recycling centres is only marginally better than sending them to landfills. At the end of the day, they are still destroyed, and others, especially those who can’t afford new books, are deprived of the opportunity of reading them. Throwing books away is not just careless  it runs contrary to everything a university is meant to represent. Calling it waste diversion only adds insult to injury.

The policy void

The image of books in blue bins is especially concerning for a university that takes prides in its “culture of sustainability.”

U of T founded an entire office dedicated to this ‘culture’ in 2004. The Sustainability Office wrote in an email that the school has systems in place to reuse excess books, and that book sale organizers are encouraged to donate books to local organizations. Yet, when I asked for details about these systems, the response only noted that the libraries exchange books within their internal network.

The fact that hundreds of books have already ended up in the blue bin tells us that whatever systems U of T does have in place appear to be inadequate. While it’s important to encourage sustainability, without concrete policy there is nothing to prevent every book sale organizer or library from throwing away perfectly good books.

The issue is that the Sustainability Office does not actually create, mandate, or implement policies at U of T, or oversee any other department. Instead, according to an email, the office is merely meant to “connect, inspire and educate.” When I asked what this meant in tangible terms, the response I received was: “a number of engagement programs and communications aimed at promoting a culture of sustainability for the campus community that you can find on our website.”

The structural issues at U of T that allow for books to end up in blue bins need to be addressed. If the Swap Shop is to be a practical solution to the issue of excess books, it needs to be advertised more, and open for more than two hours a week. The university should implement a policy requiring unwanted books to be donated or offered to students in high-traffic areas, instead of recycled.

A lack of tangible university policy is precisely why the actions of students like Bitsakakis, Greenberg, Medd, Singh, and Stark are so important. Not only did they find new homes for close to 1,000 books, they exposed a notable discrepancy between the university’s green image and the reality of its practices.

Now, the students are looking to start a club devoted to ensuring that all books in good condition stay out of the recycling bin. These actions will hopefully have a profound impact, not only in saving hundreds of books, but in showing the university how important books are to students  and compelling change in its practices.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.