When a Bookaholic Also Loves Forests - Trying to Reconcile the Environmental Footprint of Books

I’m a bookaholic, and I also care deeply about the environment. This has translated into a longstanding sense of guilt about the paper the books I have bought (and will buy) are made out of.  And yet I confess, unlike when I find out about the negative environmental impact of certain other products, knowing books aren’t exactly the most environmentally friendly things on the planet has failed to change the fact that I think they are some of the greatest things on the planet. Hmmm.

Hoping to assuage my guilt, I’ve taken to looking at books for indicators that they might be made from recycled or sustainably certified paper but, ironically, even books written about environmental conservation, more often than not, indicate nothing “green” about their physical make-up other than that they were printed with soy-based ink (as opposed to petroleum-based ink).

This, of course, means I have looked up soy-based inks to see why they are considered a green(er) option. Bad idea if ignorance is indeed bliss. I ended up coming across this article about how soy inks are the lesser of two ink-evils, as they also often contain ingredients that harm us and the environment.  Sigh. (I wasn’t even thinking about the ink!)

The Impact of Printed Books on the Environment

As for the paper books are made out of, in finally braving researching the measured impact the paper book industry has on the environment, I found these statistics on GreenPressInitiative.org:

  • Each year, approximately 30 million trees are used to make books sold in the United States—1,153 times the number of trees in New York City’s Central Park.
  • Many of these trees used for books are sourced from endangered forests with devastating impacts on the people and wildlife that rely on them.
  • On average, it is estimated that the U.S. book industry uses less than 10% recycled fiber for its paper (some publishers are better than others, though).
  • Over the course of its lifecycle, post-consumer recycled fiber requires 30-40% less energy than virgin fiber.
  • More than 140 publishers, including many of the world’s largest, have strong environmental policies (that’s good news at least!).
  • Deforestation accounts for 25% of human caused C02 emissions.
  • In 2006, an Opinion Research Corporation poll revealed that 80% of readers are willing to pay more for books printed on recycled and environmentally responsible paper.

On the whole, and to be blunt, this is a bigger bummer than I expected, though that last point is a positive one (though I think publishers would really have to plug the fact that the book is more expensive because it’s eco-friendlier).

And of course, the impact the printed word has on the environment then begs the question…

What About E-Readers?

E-readers seem to be a potentially better option than printed books, though this claim isn’t definitive.

According to this National Geographic article, while the environmental impact of manufacturing one e-reader far outweighs the impact of manufacturing one printed book, if one actually uses the e-reader and doesn’t prematurely dispose of it, e-readers may be the more environmentally-friendly choice.

For example, the CO2 footprint of a single Kindle is 168 kilograms, compared to the around 8 kilogram footprint of the average book. If an e-reader keeps someone from buying around 20 to 22 printed books, there is less environmental impact on the whole.

However, a lot of the environmental impact assessments I read comparing e-readers with printed books didn’t seem to take into account the whole picture. For starters, e-readers are made out of mined minerals.  While forests can be regenerated, mining involves finite resources, and mines themselves arguably cause more long-standing environmental harms than deforestation alone. Mines not only permanently change the earth’s surface, they also leave behind toxins that continue to contaminate the environment, and contribute to deforestation to boot.

There is also the issue of human rights.  Conflict minerals are a big concern. Ethicalconsumer.org states that there are no certified conflict-free e-readers on the market, and says this about the best-selling Kindle: “With e-readers almost as popular as tablets, and Amazon’s Kindle the best selling brand, Amazon is escaping the pressure to address its supply chains.”

Additionally, others point out that, after a book is printed, the bulk of its harmful impact is finished, whereas e-readers continue to contribute to environmental impact by requiring electricity, and are more harmful when disposed of than books as electronic recycling is not yet easy or mainstream.

Still, some e-readers are better than others. Check out this interactive e-reader ranker on Ethicalconsumers.org to see the environmental and human rights footprints of different readers based on what impacts are most important to you. Measures include environment, animals, people, politics, and product sustainability.

Imperfect Solutions That are Still Worth Doing

There’s no perfect solution for book/environment lovers but there are still things one can do that are worth doing.

I have been buying used books, and have especially been taking advantage of my local library, which has been saving me money, and helping me reduce my participation in consumption that leads to deforestation and conflict-mineral mining.  And by checking books out of the library, I’m also reading books I might not have otherwise because I don’t have to purchase them to do so.

Additionally, there is a growing movement of people creating “little free libraries.”  They put books they no longer want in a cute little “library” that stands in their yard, and ask those who take a book try to leave a book to keep it going. You can get a kit here (a bit pricey), or make your own using recycled materials.  They seem like a great way to share books with others, and build a greater sense of community in your neighborhood.

This Yes! Magazine article also recommends book exchanges, mobile book libraries (check out streetbooks.org), and sending books out into the world with a tracker to see where it shows up (e.g., leave a book on a bench and see who has it next using trackers from bookcrossing.com). These all sounds like fun ways to, again, foster community, and cycle books around to others for re-use.

Pushing to have books made from recycled and sustainably resourced paper is another way to go. And I came across this interesting for-profit organization called Ecolibris.  They work toward “sustainable reading.”  Through them, you can offset any number of books you own by donating money they then use to plant trees in a developing country. For example, $5 plants 5 trees.

Also, the Green Press Initiative exists “to work with book and newspaper industry stakeholders to conserve natural resources, preserve endangered forests, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and minimize impacts on indigenous communities.” Now this sounds excellent. One can support them by becoming a member.

And the Book Industry Environmental Council, “…strives to benchmark, track and improve our industry’s environmental footprint with science-based research and collaboration from a balanced and fully represented supply chain including: publishers, book manufacturers, paper manufacturers and suppliers, book sellers and environmental NGOs. Members work collaboratively to identify and communicate best practices towards reducing the book industry’s environmental footprint.”

The book industry has a ways to go in being kind to Mother Earth, but it’s nice to know efforts are being made to make it a greener industry, and that bookworms can help move this effort forward.  Happy reading!