Should we burn the discards

Piles of discarded books in dumpsters, ginning up outrage

Lots of folks are talking about throwing away books. More and more. You hear about it. You’ve heard about it, this guy, in the hat. He gets it.

I think you can maybe just burn the discarded books for energy, and that might make a little more sense than recycling them. To be clear, landfilling books is obviously haram, there is absolutely no way you’re going to heaven after plunging Robert Ludlum and Leon Uris into the heart of Grandmother Gaea. And you, as a library/archives Change Leader, you want to not only respect our Grandmother but derive some kind of profit from this whole process. So let’s take a look at burning the discards.

These are not technically-speaking library discards

Way back in 1996 an industry group put out a paper that concluded, Recycling versus incineration, whomst really can say. Some dude in Slate magazine was still relying on that study in 2008. Alas, depending on how you cut it, burning paper and recycling it have equivalent energy effects. I’m not totally sure, but I mean to find a justification for burning down the archives, because they have great potential value to the soldier. I think we can burn down little a the archives, as a treat. Come with me.

Mixed paper when burned delivers 6447 BTUs per pound, according to this source. You can maybe turn your paper into hydrochar feedstock, kind of like when the Stasi began mass-dumping their wetted, shredded files from the Papierwolf into the sewers of Berlin. Depending on its source, hydrochar gives us energy in the range of 6500-12900 BTUs per pound. So, better than mixed paper, and not as good as coal, which gives us 12,900 to 15,000 BTUs per pound. And, at least the way I read the schematic on that page, the input of energy to make the char out of our municipal waste slurry is about 1/5th the energy output, so let’s put the char down for between 5900 and 11600 BTU/lb.

Fantastic, this looks like free energy! Now what can we do with all these BTUs? Devoted readers will remember that our liberry and archive storage environments probably run at the high end of buildings’ HVAC usage: 200,000 BTUs per square foot per year, 548 BTUs per square foot per day. So one burned discarded book gets the energy necessary to run HVAC for one square foot of library for 12 days; a book added to a wastestream feed for hydrochar could contribute one foot of hvac for 24, maybe. And one burned box of weeded archival material, at thirty pounds, gets pretty close to covering the BTUs for one square foot of archival real estate; turned to hydrochar that might cover two years of HVAC for that same square foot.

Superb! What else can we do with this new energy stream? Can we burn discarded paper in order to cover the energy costs of running the servers that hold digitized versions of the paper? You insane man, you alchemist, how could this be? You fucking wizard. Can we burn human bodies in order to preserve the disembodied souls of more fortunate humans? Of course reasonable men would never consider that kind of sacrifice.

Fuck us that is a lot of folks, 2020-2022.

Okay so this 1.5TB Intel server system from a couple of years ago burns 2812 BTUs per hour. I guess you can fiddle with the math per server yourself. But the example there has 1883 BTUs per hour, and the extra cool thing is that those thermal units turn a little bit of electricity into heat in your server room, which you then have to cool, to say nothing of the heat gain added to the room by the people working in it, which might be 400-500 BTUs/hr.

There’s a lot of ways to fuck around with data storage, it’s just immeasurably cursed, I mean you could scan a bunch of stuff and plunk it on an unpowered ssd and shove it under the bed for like no energy cost. I do not want to fight the engineers today. BUT a shop I know has about 250,000 “objects” most of them pages of text on an about 4TB Custom Digital Archives Server From A Canadian Maritime Province. The numbers in the graf above look like what 2500 BTUs per hour per 1.5TB? So the shop I know is using 7500 BTUs per hour, so they could burn about a pound of paper / hydrochar every hour to preserve that content. That quarter-million pages, or you know “pages” it’s not all text, at maybe 3000 pages per box, is only 83 cubic foot boxes or so. At 30 pounds per box, an equivalent paper-burning-offset would be 2490 pounds, so as many hours of server time, about a hundred days.

Friends there is hope! A robust weeding program in archives, turned into some form of energy credits? I don’t know? can pay for its own server costs, for a little while! Maybe for long enough! I think I can find about 0.5% of my collections to burn every year, and that half-a-percent gets me 6000 hours of server time to preserve the good stuff! Plus servers are going to get more fuel-efficient over the next 20 years, I fully doubt I’d have to burn as much as 10% of holdings, but we almost have that technology, and I definitely have the will. We can burn the village in order to save it.

Now, bad news for sick freaks like me who want to burn everything that doesn’t move, or who want to blow up the moon. Recycling paper is better than acquiring paper pulp from farmed trees; takes about 60-70% of the energy to produce, depending on the source you ask. Awkwardly, the EPA tells us that every 2000 pounds of paper recycled — I guess that means the recycled paper has to replace and take offline 2000 pounds of paper from farmed trees, which it might not do anyway — saves 6 months of a US home’s energy. What in tarnation does that mean. A US home consumes 893 kWh per month. So six months, 5358 kWh divided by 2000lbs is 2.679kwh per pound energy saved. That is 9141 BTUs of saved energy per pound of recycled paper.

So: it may be that recycling those pounds of discards can save energy that might otherwise be used elsewhere. And burning the content can produce energy that we otherwise wouldn’t get. But the surest path toward energy sustainability in this benighted field is to get out as quickly as you can and don’t build any collections yourself.

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