The US publishing industry is responsible for 12.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide entering our atmosphere each year, mainly because of cutting trees to produce paper, according to the just-published report Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the US Book Industry (found via).
The situation in the UK is of course comparable, and booktwo.org quotes an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement in which environmental scientist and author David Reay throws some pretty scary statistics at us:
What with production and transport, the average paperback has eaten its way through 4.5kWh of energy by the time it gets to a reader. In terms of climate impact, this is equivalent to about 3kg of carbon dioxide emissions for every glossy new textbook. So, for a print run of 10,000, there is a cost of 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide not mentioned on the dust jackets. But this is a best-case scenario. The sale-or-return system virtually guarantees that the damage is much more severe. If half the books delivered to bookshops then have to be trucked back to the publisher and pulped, there’s yet another great belch of greenhouse gases to ultimately heat up the cheeks of both publisher and author…The industry is terrifically wasteful. booktwo.org estimates that :
Assume that the average print run for those 200,000 titles is just 1,000 copies. That’s 200 million books coming off the presses in a year - 600,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and, even if we assume very low return rates, enough pulped book to fill the dining hall at Hogwart’s several times over.
In terms of its contribution to global warming, UK publishing in effect puts an extra 100,000 cars on our roads. Our esteemed seats of learning are a sizeable cog in this engine: the average undergraduate buys at least three volumes per course, while most academic offices are crammed from floor to ceiling with dusty tomes…
... half of all books printed in the UK are never read. And they’re not redistributed either, but returned to the publishers or otherwise disposed of, usually pulped or simply placed in landfill.The good news, the industry is becoming much greener :
The book industry’s use of recycled fiber has increased six-fold in the past few years, and many companies in the book business are developing environmental policies and setting goals to increase their use of recycled and certified paper, improve impacts on forests, reduce energy consumption, and lessen their overall carbon footprint.But, something else to chew on. Global shipping is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and most of the books we buy in this part of the world are shipped to us from the US and UK. And books are mighty bulky things.
Approximately 45 percent of publishers now have meaningful environmental policies in place, with concrete goals and timelines. In fact, four of the top 10 publishers-including Random House, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and Thomas Nelson-have joined 160 smaller publishers in making significant public commitments in this arena. In addition, a solid majority of respondents (more than 220) have endorsed the Book Industry Treatise on Responsible Paper.
Well those who love read their books in digital format tiny carbon-footprint have tiny carbon-footprints compared to the rest of us. (I hear Chet and Leon cheering.) Maybe some attitude shifting (including my own) has to happen?
I reckon that if we want to be truly environmentally friendly in our reading we should encourage major publishing houses in the west to explore the idea of print-on demand so that small numbers of copies of books can be printed here as we want they are ordered. (Is this just a dream? Why couldn't this work?)
Publishers can of course make greater use of recycled paper. The quality is excellent, but according to Amir who has used it, the price is much higher than for new paper.
And perhaps the industry as a whole (here and in the west) has to look at the way it deals with returns and make an effort to be less wasteful ...
Perhaps you have some more ideas of your own?