How to Recycle Books & Magazines

While magazine subscriptions are on a recent decline and book sales are holding steady, it’s likely you have a stockpile of both these products on your coffee table, in your bookshelf or collecting dust in the garage. When you’re ready to clean them out, hopefully, recycling is on your mind.

Both books and magazines fall under the category of mixed paper, which also includes catalogs and phone books. While mixed paper has a lower commodity value (and thus a smaller recycling market) than items like newspapers, office paper, and corrugated cardboard, most paper mills in the U.S. will recycle mixed paper.

Book and Magazine Recycling Preparation

  1. For magazines, you don’t need to remove anything from inside the magazine, such as staples, cardstock ads, or even perfume samples. You can also leave the cover and binding.
  2. If the magazine came in a plastic bag, you’ll want to remove and recycle this separately.
  3. For paperback books, you can recycle the book whole, including the binding. For hardcover books, you’ll need to remove the cover because it has non-paper components.
  4. If your books or magazines have gotten wet or the paper has turned tan or brown, there is no recycling market for this material. But don’t throw them away yet. Unless they’re no longer readable, they still have potential for reuse. Consider donating them to used bookstores, thrift stores, or charities, which may welcome these items. They also can still be used for a variety of upcycling projects.

Why Recycle Books and Magazines

  • Each ton of paper recycled saves 3 cubic yards of landfill space, 380 gallons of oil and 17 trees, not to mention 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water
  • Paper accounts for half the weight of all recyclables collected in curbside programs, and books and magazines are some of the heaviest paper products
  • We only get 33 percent of our new paper pulp from recycled materials; the rest must be sourced from tearing down trees and wood chips

Book and Magazine Recycling Process

Since both books and magazines are mixed paper, the first step in recycling is to separate these products from cardboard, office paper and newspaper grades. The mixed paper is then baled and sent to a mill.

At the mill, there are machines called pulpers that introduce water and chemicals to break down the paper into fibers. Then, any ink and adhesive is removed and the paper fibers start bonding together. Finally, the fibers are rolled and dried, then sent off to make new products. Because mixed paper fibers are smaller than cardboard or office paper, this paper is recycled into lesser-quality paper products, such as coffee filters, egg cartons and paper towels.

Find a drop-off location for books and magazines near you using the Recycling Locator.

Find Recycling Guides for Other Materials

Frequent Book and Magazine Recycling Questions

Can I recycle books and magazines in my curbside recycling program?

Most curbside recycling programs accept magazines and paperback books as mixed paper. Some programs specifically exclude hardcover books because of the binding, unless you remove it. You definitely want to check with your local program, though.

Is there a reuse market for books?

Yes. Companies like Better World Books and Discover Books will accept books in good condition to sell them online. These companies operate drop-off bins in many shopping mall parking lots. You can also ask your local library if it accepts used books, as they can be sold to companies like the ones mentioned above or sold in book sales to raise money for library programs. You may even have some Little Free Libraries in your neighborhood — a great way to give others a chance to read books you no longer want.

Why can’t wet books and magazines be recycled?

Even though the paper recycling process introduces water, when you get paper wet and it dries, it manipulates the fibers (as a result, it feels more stiff). Paper mills also don’t want to pay for wet paper because it’s heavier with the extra water weight.

Why can’t I recycle books whose pages have yellowed or turned tan or brown?

Yellowed paper is not recyclable because the lignin — the material in the cell walls of wood — has become oxidized. That yellow color can contaminate the whiter, brighter lignins when yellowed and newer papers are recycled together. That lowers the value of the resulting recycled paper, so old books are not accepted for recycling. 

Does the ink on book and magazine paper affect recycling?

No. Most media these days are printed using soy-based ink, which is easily removed during the recycling process.

Are there any states that require book and magazine recycling?

Several states have passed laws requiring paper products be recycled, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as Washington, D.C.

Why can’t books and magazines be recycled into new books and magazines?

The paper recycling process has five to seven lifecycles before the fibers become too short to make new paper. Books and magazines are at the middle of this lifecycle, meaning they were produced from higher-quality paper fibers like office paper. Some of the fiber created from recycling books and magazines can be used to produce other paper products like phone books, but the fibers aren’t strong enough to make new books and magazines. 

Additional Reading