The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

June 28, 2012

When a Plastic-Free Book is Covered in Plastic

When you write a book called Plastic-Free, and your publisher strives to create the book without any plastic materials, you might expect the book will be offered to the public without plastic.  But expect the unexpected.  Logic does not always prevail.  I’ve received a couple of reports of my book being covered in plastic: one situation is truly unfortunate.  The other situation is more understandable.  Here’s what happened.

Plastic-Free shrink wrapped!

One of my Australian readers emailed me to say that my book had been delivered to the bookstore his mom manages completely shrink-wrapped in plastic. He even sent me a photo:

After a bit of freaking out (on my part) and research (on the part of his mom and my publisher), we learned that the Australian distributor had shrink wrapped all 80 copies after receiving them, in an effort to protect them from… what? Human hands? Obviously, they had not noticed the title of the book when they did this. But also, they didn’t stop to think that allowing customers to open and flip through books is how you market them–especially a book like Plastic-Free, which is full of color photos and beautiful design features. Anyway, the distributor has promised this will not happen again. And I just hope that bookstores that receive shrink-wrapped copies will remove the plastic and send it back to the distributor with a note explaining why before displaying the book for customers.

I also hope that they will not only send back the plastic from my book, but all books they receive shrink-wrapped in plastic.  It’s a matter of values, actually.  Is preventing a few fingerprints worth adding more single-use disposable plastic to the planet?

(And to those who worry about the carbon footprint of sending back packaging: to me, the little carbon generated to return unwanted packaging will be negated by the reduction in plastic packaging when companies get the message and stop producing so much plastic waste in the first place.  But they won’t do it if we don’t let them know.  And I think sending back packaging sends a more powerful statement than simply sending an email or writing a letter.  But what do you think?)

Plastic Library Covers

I’ve also been getting emails from readers letting me know that libraries are covering my book in protective plastic sleeves.

After receiving a couple of these notices, I emailed my local Oakland librarian to find out a) if Oakland would be covering my book in plastic, and b) if there was any way to avoid it — perhaps a different kind of protective material could be used. Here’s her response:

I understand your concern and how ironic this is, but keep in mind that our books are handled by many, many different people. Libraries often even have to wipe down books that are returned with sticky covers — you would be amazed at how badly they are often treated. In the ecological scheme of things, we would be replacing our books much, much more often if they did not have protective mylar covers. I did talk this over with our processing folks, and cellulose simply does not work as well and is prohibitively expensive.

My thoughts? I do wish there were a more sustainable alternative than plastic to use to protect the books, but I also recognize that protecting the book so that it can be read by hundreds, if not thousands, of people will have a much lower ecological footprint than if each of those people were to purchase a book separately. I support libraries. In fact, in Plastic-Free, I champion borrowing, sharing, and renting over buying new stuff. It’s not just a way to reduce plastic consumption, but to reduce consumption in general. So while I’m not thrilled to have my book covered in plastic, and I expect to receive many more emails about it as people check out the book from the library, I can live with it.

What do you think?  Have you heard of an alternative way for libraries to protect books that doesn’t involve plastic?

And if you encounter Plastic-Free wrapped in plastic–outside of a library–please contact me and let me know.   I’ll get right on it!


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Jennifer Russell

I work in a public library, and I am all for discovering how to use plant based plastics to cover books. In NYS, the libraries are being asked to join a sustainability project, and I’m hoping that we can band together to put pressure on the book distributors and library materials manufactures to begin to look past non-biodegradable plastics. I think that it would take a large scale push.

Beth Terry

itissunny I’m so glad you used it as an opportunity to engage someone in a conversation about plastic!


I laughed when I saw that our library covered your book in plastic. Actually, having the plastic coated library book titled Plastic Free, with me has been a great conversation starter with total strangers, including with the local library staff. A lot of people seem plastic-free-curious and just needed something like seeing an oxymoron in action to get them motivated to learn more.


Tracey TieF So I’m looking at it going “it IS bound” and “it HAS a spine” because it’s thread-bound. That book’ll last much longer than the glued-in pages of modernly bound books. But yes, traditional binding would include putting a layer of leather over the thread binding and attaching it to the front and back boards with wheat paste. Though, it appears to have cardboard front and back rather than hardwood.

Shona LALA dex press

Funny to read this post because just today I picked-up your book from the library and they put the plastic sleeve on it.

Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator

@Shona LALA dex press Yea unfortunately everyone is experiencing this same issue when borrowing Plastic Free from the library. I understand why libraries need to protect their books, just wish there was a plastic free alternative that all libraries used.

Tory Tashian

Dear Terry and Readers. After just hearing a wonderful interview of you on NPR Radio, I thought of my friend who is quite eco-minded. She created a product – washable produce bags! They are wonderful to carry, wash and store your vegetables in. They are reusable, washable, come in may sizes, and are carried in a few of our local supermarkets. My local Safeway, has refused so far to switch from plastic bags to paper. I don’t mean to use this forum in any way to sell her product. I just would like people from other states to know that… Read more »

Beth Terry

Thanks for sharing this resource!


Please spread the idea to Asia, especially cities like Hong Kong, too many plastic here, very difficult to avoid. I’m reading your book with Kindle.


I don’t think I’ve ever seen a library book that WAS covered in plastic – and I’m a frequent library patron. Most curious.

Rainbird Librarian

I am a librarian in Alaska, and not only have we covered your book in plastic to protect it, but we actually had to spend a fair amount of time (and some plastic!) to create a binding for it, as it came without any spine. At first, we contacted our book supplier, thinking we had received a damaged copy. I understand that you are trying to make a point by publishing without the use of plastic, but books were bound – with spines – for hundreds of years before the invention of plastic. Surely your publisher could have figured out… Read more »

Tracey TieF

Good point. We DO know ho to make well bound books without plastic. I imagine the printer simply eliminated some materials and steps rather than replace them with previous non-plastic versions of bindings. I use the word imagine strictly here, because I haven’t even handled a REAL copy of the book yet!

Hazrat Ali

… the regulators…


I had to request the book be ordered for the Spokane County library system. It’s now being catalogued and I’m the only one on the waiting list. Hopefully that will change once it’s actually available. After I’d requested it, I was kicking myself… I should asked that they order the ebook!

Beth Terry

Thanks, Stashless. Can they order both?


I just put a hold on your book at the Seattle Public Library. They have nine copies with a waiting list, Yay! I am pretty sure your book will have a plastic protective cover, and while it is disappointing, I really do get it. I hope your books at my library will be read by many many people and i am looking forward to reading it.

Beth Terry

Wow. That’s amazing. Even Berkeley and Oakland only have one copy each. And waiting lists. But 9 copies. Very cool.


@Beth Terry
Your comment about Berkeley and Oakland made me curious. Seattle residents can also use the King County Library System (Seattle is part of King County) and I am pretty sure that the KCLS is either the second or third largest library system in the country. They have 14 of your books on order; I am so pleased for you..

Lauras Last Ditch

My friends in college worked in the library. They’d shrink-wrap any books with loose pages, and each time it got checked out, it would get rewrapped. Let’s hope that, at least, doesn’t happen to your book. But with the non-synthetic binding, perhaps it will be more durable.

Tracey TieF

I think it’s absolutely miraculous that you prevented so much plastic and waste in the production of your book in the first place! So I know that your books shrink wrapped in plastic is part of your nightmare scenario, but it’s neat to imagine all of your books that WEREN’T shrink wrapped because you insisted. My “” supplier sends me most objects in plastic straight from the manufacturer, although he conscientiously packs in paper. It’s going to take a bit for the world to stop thinking “it’s only one little bit of plastic” and see the mountains composed of “one… Read more »

Ellen S. Gordon

Well handled! And I fully agree with the shipping packaging back to sender thing – we all ought to do a lot more of that.


Oy Vey! That’s all I can think to say.

Tess Giles Marshall

Heavy on the irony, this! But I like Susan’s comment that it continues the conversation.

My Plastic-free Life

Hi Joshua Gardner. No one’s picking on librarians, but it never hurts to think about whether there might be better alternatives. Also… the article is not just about a library covering the book in plastic (which is understandable) but a distributor also shrink wrapping every book in plastic. BTW, my husband is a librarian. :-)

Joshua Gardner

All the people in the comments picking on libraries surprise me. No, obviously it’s not the best solution and it would be best if, in the future, libraries didn’t do this. But there are so many more important and bigger steps we can all take before we start picking on libraries and librarians.


I can imagine that this is frustrating and a tiny bit embarrassing for you Beth. Such a difficult dilemma this plasticized world we now live in. Know that you’re making a HUGE impact in the best of ways with your book, your blog, and your message. Can’t wait to get my grimy hands on a copy of your book ; )

Anastacia Andrade



I would like to know more about the mylar libraries cover books with, because we check out a lot of kids’ books from the library, and I’ve often wondered about the safety of the plastic they use to cover books. Do you know anything about it, Beth?

Beth Terry

If it’s actually Mylar, here is an explanation: Polyethylene terephthalate is the same material that plastic water bottles are made from, as well as polar fleece and other textiles.


My (university) library removes the paper dust jackets of most hardbacks with paper covers. There’s a little piece of plastic on the binding that sticks on the call number, but otherwise none. I guess it makes the book have less ‘eye candy’ appeal, but maybe you could request that option? Overall, though, I totally agree that the benefit of more people being able to read the book over time counteracts the small amount of plastic used.

Beth Terry

To use that option, they would have to write the title information on the cover because the cover of my book is completely blank and unprinted. See photos here: The other issue is that the spine is completely exposed. So I’m thinking that these design decisions are, unfortunately, resulting in a book that must be covered by libraries.


@Beth Terry Ah yes, sounds like that wouldn’t be a great option with this particular book design!

Beth Terry

And also, because of the exposed spine, there would be nothing to stick the sticker on. You know?

Elizabeth Bales-Stutes

You’re so inspiring, Beth.

Amy Sirk

Ironic and a little disappointing. But one step at a time, I guess.

The Green Cat

WHAT? Why would a library need to cover a book in plastic? I often check books out of the New York City public library system and the only time I have noticed a plastic cover on a book is if it has a paper dust jacket on it. That is, if a book is a hardcover with no jacket, I don’t think there is plastic on it. I KNOW that paperback books do not have plastic on all of them. I’m curious now and will request your book from my library to see what they’ve done.

Beth Terry

Cat, my book has a paper dust jacket. And the actual cover is unprinted. So I’m guessing that’s why. Maybe this is something that should have been considered in the book design.

The Green Cat

@Beth Terry Ah I didn’t realize that since my copy is digital.


@Beth Terry Beth, I think the book design is awesome, and incredibly unique. I never saw a modern thing like it. I think most people are used to seeing covers on library books. A big clue will be when EVERY book on the shelf has one. Don’t worry :)


If you ever publish another book, you could consider a separate library edition, like a lot of children’s books have.

Beth Terry

@julsie Great idea.


@The Green Cat I actually think it’s perfectly acceptable for them to cover the book, for exactly the reasons that the librarian states. Plastic does have a place in our world and sometimes it is the best solution, though, as we know, it is often not used in this way. Besides, the mylar cover is not a ‘single-use’ item. That cover may just last the entire life of that book, and prolong the life of the book while it’s at it.

The Green Cat

@TigerLee @Beth Terry Yes, I see how the plastic wrapper is useful in some cases. I did a little perusal of the books I currently have from the library. It seems that the NY public library system only uses the plastic wrapper if a book has a paper dust jacket. Paperback books and books with the title information on them do not have plastic wrappers here (and in a system this big, books get a lot of use!) Here’s some photos I took of 3 examples from the library. I think Beth is correct that the exposed spine and… Read more »

Beth Terry

Thanks for the pix. Yep, all libraries will probably wrap mine in plastic, based on those photos. But like I said, I’m hoping the negative impact of the plastic will be more than negated by the positive impact of the message and the changes it inspires. Keeping my fingers crossed. :-)


If a book is completely dog eared and torn, it means it’s being read. That sends the message to me that I NEED to read the book.

Libraries and books have survived for centuries without plastic binders. Tell the Oakland Library that I’ll send them my copy if theirs becomes too dog-eared. Or, they can add a sticker that says, “We realize that by adding this un-neccesary cover that we are adding to the problem of plastic pollution.”


@InWomenWeTrust Yeah, like a disclaimer – the author and publisher did not do this – WE DID :)

Sharon Chinn Heritch

Yup. I requested our library order a copy, which they did. And covered it in mylar. Irony. But I made the same analysis you did, and figured that if more people read it, the ripples can spread.

Susan Werb

the positive thing about all of this is that it continues the conversation, reveals how embedded and widespread the problem is, and perhaps inspires innovation – willow glass, sugar, bamboo, sand…..