Security Shredding and Storage - a shredding industry publication
Southern Debindery finds a constant niche in book shredding.
by Kim Fernandez

Jerry Swords thought he’d stumbled onto a niche market when he agreed to help Time-Life Books de-bind and destroy their excess books some 30 years ago.

He thought right.

Retired from the military, Swords founded Southern Debindery Services as a temporary thing. But the Lebanon, Tenn. Company now occupies 75,000 square feet with specialized equipment that can debind and shred up to 20 tons of books, magazines, directories, and paper volumes per hour.

Patricia Norman, vice president of operations and marketing, says the company has succeeded for so long because it provides a valuable service, both for book and directory companies and for the environment. Many recyclers, she says, refuse to take books and other printed volumes because the time needed to manually separate the print-grade paper from the covers and spines makes the process cost-prohibitive. And because tissue mills continue to demand more and more material to work with, recycling books has become a valuable service.

“One of the things we specialize in is that we don’t have to separate,” she says. “Hard cover books, cataloges, phone directories—anything people have, we save them time separating. A lot of places will put magazines over there and then take and separate their hard cover books. But by the time you’ve spent the manpower to do that, you’re not saving any money.”

Southern Debindery makes use of powerful equipment that negates the need to de-bind books by hand, she says. Instead, the complete, assembled volumes travel through massive hydraulic shredders. The books are then compacted and baled for recycling. Some of the equipment is so specialized that it was actually built on-site at the company’s plant. Thanks to those machines, the company can shred books, directories, and spiral-bound volumes, but also most other grades of paper and cardboard, making it full-service to the printing and paper recycling industries.

Filling a Need
Because the company is able to save time and money with its one-step shredding process, it draws customers from a 1,000-mile radius around Nashville, which is about a half-hour’s drive from the Lebanon plant. The need for simple debinding and shredding is so great, in fact, that Sword’s planned retirement several years ago was soundly shouted down by book producers and directory companies, all of which said they needed his services in the area.

Municipal recycling centers are also beginning to accept books, despite many not having the proper equipment to de-bind and shred them and lacking the budgets to even consider upgrading their machines.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 23 percent of discarded books were recycled in the United States in 2005. The numbers for telephone directories were even lower; only 18 percent were recycled that year. The rest were simply thrown away.

Environmental experts say that those low numbers can largely be attributed to a lack of recycling programs for bound materials. Companies like Southern Debindery, that invest in the equipment needed to shred bound volumes, are helping those numbers creep upwards.

“We pull materials from distributors, recyclers, and publishers,” says Norman, who’s worked with Southern Debindery for about seven years and worked with the company through another employer for a decade before that. “Anyone who has a need to have books recycled calls us. These distributors don’t want their books to end up on a secondary market.”

That’s why the company touts its ability to provide certificates of destruction to its customers, who are also able to actually watch their volumes be shredded if they wish.

“For the guy who runs the local recycling place down on the corner, he’s [recycling books] as a community service to keep things from going into the landfill,” says Norman. “For someone who’s a bigger distributor or publisher, they have reasons they want the books destroyed.”

Because the volumes are shredded into one final class of paper, recycling companies and shredded material suppliers find it easy to make use of Southern Debindery’s final product, she says. “It all gets hogged into one grade of paper.” Customers need to do no pre-sorting, says Norman.

Most recently, the company has found a market for CDs that come bound into books or are distributed with pamphlets and directories. “Excel workbooks, for example, have CDs bound into them,” she says. Those are removed and recycled by a Southern client. “Almost everything that comes in here is recycled and made into a new product.” That includes spiral bindings and wires as well.

Shredded materials are bound and shipped to pulping mills, roofing mills, or cellulose manufacturers.

Customer Service
While shredding books simply and cost-effectively is a specialty of the company, basic customer service is another. Norman says customers find the company easy to work with, no matter how large their jobs are or how frequently they find themselves needing volumes destroyed.

“If we have a customer who needs a large amount done on a monthly basis, we provide them with a trailer,” says Norman. “We can then usually have that picked up within 48 hours of their calling us.” Same-day service is also a hallmark of the company, which is convenient to local rail lines.

The company boasts its own trucks and drivers and has a network of haulers lined up to keep things moving—literally. Norman says that those services combined with the company’s unique shredding capabilities provide valuable services to paper companies that might not have the means to handle books and other bound volumes themselves.

They’re also willing to call in a second shift to get large jobs done quickly. The company normally runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but those hours are sometimes extended due to demand, which, Norman says, is cyclical.

“It goes with the paper markets,” she says. “It also goes with the school systems and it goes with people cleaning out their inventories.”

That’s a big change from the company’s first decade in business. Norman attributes that to new printing technologies that have made automatic overruns obsolete.

“Fifteen years ago, printers had to run this overabundance of a publication to not have enough to not need to reset the presses,” she says. “Sometimes, they’d have hundreds of thousands of volumes, and sometimes that was also because they thought something was going to be big and it wasn’t. But now they can do all of that digitally. That’s been a big change in the book industry.”

“We’re pretty unique,” she says. “A lot of people will dabble in [book recycling] when the markets get good. The markets pick up and they’ll do books for awhile. But when the markets change, they stop.”

Because Southern Debindery specializes in book and bound volume recycling, she says, customers know they don’t have to send their materials only when markets are up to get the best prices or service.

And, she says, doomsayers in the industry have been squawking about the end of the book recycling market for years, but the company has yet to see a major downturn stemming from technological advances on the consumer side.

“People have told us that audio books are going to hurt us,” says Norman. “But it seems like the more paperless we try to become, the more paper we see.”

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