Reduce, Reuse, Reincarnate

Grant Buday

“There’s no money in books,” said Selma, who ran the book recycling program for British Columbia. “The program’s being cancelled. We’ll send a truck to pick up our bins.” A week later all eight bins that we had on site, each the size of a porta-potty, were gone. That was a couple of years ago.

Now when people bring books into the recycling depot here on Mayne Island, I say to take them to the thrift store or burn them in their wood-burning stoves at home. If that’s too Fahrenheit 451 for people, I suggest tearing the books apart and peeling the glue from the spines and then we can assimilate them in the recycling stream. The problem, I explain, is the glue. People usually remark on the amount of time and effort involved in dismembering a book, to which I suggest they do it while watching Netflix. They study my face when I say that, not sure if I am being sincere or sarcastic. I assure them that’s what I do with books I intend to recycle.

It is an Orwellian experience to sit in front of the television and dismember a novel or a history text or any book for that matter. It’s only the mouldy, tattered and unreadable that undergo this procedure. Though admittedly the category “unreadable” is ambiguous, including books physically indecipherable and books that I deem dreck. I often dismember books while watching Downton Abbey. Some people rate it dreck, but I enjoy watching the plot unfold. The writer deals obstacles like cards to the characters, who must play their hands. I especially like the toff who survives the sinking of the Titanic and is taken to Montréal, but has amnesia. A good Son of Empire, he enlists to fight the Kaiser and then regains his memory due to the shock of a mortar blast. He returns to Downton with facial scarring so severe that nobody believes him when he identifies himself. In anguish, no longer in line to inherit Downton or wed the cool and aloof Mary Crawley, he drags himself off to who knows what fate.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon’s business has soared as people get things mailed to them rather than risk entering retail spaces. The volume of cardboard coming into the recycling depot has consequently also soared. Isolated, atomized, online and at home, we pulp even more trees to pack and protect our packages.

More packaging means more recycling. Mayne Island has a permanent population of about thirteen hundred consumers. The depot is open two days per week, and each day we bale some 45 kilos of paper and cardboard. Every second day we collect Styrofoam in a bag six feet in diameter, like an enormous snowball, easy to roll onto the truck, a parody of the stone Sisyphus is condemned to roll up a hill. For us at the depot, as for Sisyphus in Hades, the Styrofoam never ends.

One paper product in decline is newsprint. This is because more and more people prefer their daily dose of depression online. Still, newsprint retains one value—it is in demand as fire starter. Many people come into the depot with no other purpose than to ask for it.

Along with newsprint, books and corrugated cardboard, we get magazines: the New Yorker, Harper’s, the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the Rolling Stone and all manner of trade publication. Sometimes people bring in decades worth of Life magazine, which smell damp and cheesy. We often see boxes of National Geographic dating back to the 195s or earlier. These have a different odour, a little more chemical, likely due to the type of stock and the nature of the ink. Or it’s a matter of how they were stored. This mass of printed material means we have plenty to peruse. Here is an article on the Rat Pack, with a smiling young Frank Sinatra, fedora tipped back, face tipped up, riding the American Dream. The ads, free of guilt or irony, peddle the promise of the sophistication and satisfaction to be had through cruising about in convertibles, enjoying a refreshing cigarette, or stylishly sipping a martini.

There is a lot of martini sipping, wine drinking and beer guzzling on Mayne Island. I can tell by the volume of empties. They are one of our larger sources of revenue, therefore we encourage people to drink as much as possible, assuring them it is for a good cause. The book collection program was for a good cause as well. The books went to orphanages, asylums and prisons.

Reducing, reusing and recycling are rated wise protocols. The paper collected at the depot goes to a processing facility where it is rendered into more paper. This means it is possible for a shoebox to be reborn as a book of poems, an artist’s sketchbook or a novel that addresses elusive but persistent questions such as reincarnation, or the fate of an amnesiac—like the character in Downton Abbey, who regained his memory but lost his future.

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Grant Buday

Grant Buday’s most recent novel, Orphans of Empire, was shortlisted for the City of Victoria Book Award and the Roderick Haig-Brown Award. His short story “Marry Me” will be included in the anthology Fifty Years of Best Canadian Stories. He lives on Mayne Island, BC.


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