A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’m co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, but first and foremost I’m the son of a librarian. Growing up in a house full of books and spending many hours in the public library where my mom worked, shaped my love of books, which eventually also brought me to start Eco-Libris with few great colleagues in a search of how to make reading more sustainable.
I was asked to write about something I’m very passionate about, so I decided to write about the topic that occupies me the most these days (except my little baby girl..): how we can achieve sustainable reading, or in other words – what are the main elements that can significantly impact the future of the book industry and determine how green it will be?
Before getting into it, I would like to briefly present Eco-Libris to readers who are not familiar with our work. Eco-Libris is a green business that works with book readers, publishers, authors, bookstores and others in the book industry to balance out the paper used for books by planting trees. The idea is simple: we aim to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of using paper for the production of books, work to decrease the number of trees been cut down for books and provide people and businesses with an opportunity to plant trees for their books. Our customers also receive a sticker made of recycled paper for every book they balance out saying “One tree planted for this book”.
We have partnered with three highly respected US and UK registered non-profit organizations that work in collaboration with local communities in developing countries to plant these trees. The trees are planted to high ecological and sustainable standards in Latin America and Africa, where deforestation is a critical problem. Planting trees in these places not only helps to fight climate change and conserve soil and water, but also benefits many local people, for whom these trees offer many benefits.
When we started Eco-Libris in 2007, we were quoting the figure of 20 million trees as the common estimate for the number of trees cut down annually for the production of books sold in the U.S. Last Saturday we reported on our blog that we are sadly updating this figure to about 30 million trees.
Just to be clear – most of these trees that are cut down for books are sourced from un-farmed sources (not to mention the fact that tree farms themselves have, in many cases, a devastating impact on native forests and indigenous communities). Mandy Haggith, the author of the new book “Paper Trails” explained this issue to the Independent recently: “No one likes to think of trees being felled, but many of us have a cosy image in our heads that it all comes from recycling or “sustainable” woodlands growing in neat rows, perhaps somewhere in Sweden. It’s a myth. Globally, 70 per cent of the 335 million tons of paper the world uses each year comes from natural, un-farmed sources. In Canada, the UK’s biggest source of pulp, 90 per cent of its output comes directly from its ancient forests.”
So what do you do? What should happen to make this update the last time we give a greater number? There are many things that can and should be done. I chose to discuss three key elements that can significantly impact the green future of the book industry and the number of trees cut down for books:
Putting a price on carbon dioxide – we have a fundamental problem – there is no cost on carbon dioxide to be taken into account when comparing virgin paper to greener alternatives. Hence virgin paper wins every alternative when it comes to the bottom line, especially in the short term. It’s true the premium on recycled paper is decreasing significantly and it’s now in many cases only a few percent, but even so – one of the reasons there’s still a premium is that we ignore the cost of carbon dioxide and act as if it doesn’t exist.
And it’s even more true when it comes to other alternatives which are more costly, such as agricultural waste (wheat straw for example – it was just used for printing the June issue of the Canadian National Geographic) or crops like hemp, which I believe to be a superior alternative to virgin paper on every environmental aspect but still lacks the economics on its side to become a significant option.
According to the report ‘Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry‘, which was published earlier this year by The Green Press Initiative and The Book Industry Study Group, the average carbon footprint of a book is 8.85 lbs, CO2 equivalent. Per book the added cost of carbon dioxide may not look significant (around 12 cents a book taking into consideration a price of $30 per ton of CO2), but when you think of hundreds of thousands or millions of books it sure does make a difference.
Regulation is necessary. If we will count only on voluntary action, then we can expect only limited change that will take a very long time. I’m not sure we can afford such a level of change and therefore we need regulation to make sure ALL the book industry is on the same page and everyone sees ALL of the costs in front of them. That’s the only chance I believe to make sure a significant change will be achieved.
Increasing the book industry’s efficiency – According to the ‘Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry‘ report, 4.15 billion books are produced for the American market. Only 3.086 billion of them are being sold. It means that about 25% of the books produced are not sold at bookstores and are being returned to the publishers.
The results are disastrous. According the report, the U.S. EPA estimates that books accounted for 762,000 metric tons of paper in municipal solid waste. It results in methane releases that are calculated in the report as 8.2% of the total book industry’s carbon footprint.
There is something wrong with any operational system that functions only at 75% efficiency at best. The current status quo just doesn’t work well – not only that it costs the environment, it also costs the publishers. And now some publishers such as HarperCollins want to change this reality and shift the risk of unsold books to the bookstores. But again it’s not a win-win deal and maybe the publishers and the environment will gain in some way, but bookstores and the public (there will be less titles on the shelves) will lose.
There’s an urgent need for a solution that will be a win-win one, benefiting publishers, bookstores, the public and the environment. Can it be done? So far no one managed to find this solution. It’s a riddle that just waits for a creative and bright idea or maybe an algorithm that will figure it all out. Some say the only solution is books that don’t need to be returned at all – e-books. They say this is the solution and it brings us to the next element.
Developing the next generations of e-books – Is this the magic answer? Well, e-books don’t need paper and therefore no trees are cut down. They don’t need transportation or physical storage and therefore no extra costs and extra footprint are required to bring the book from the publisher to the reader. Yet, other factors to be considered, especially with regards to e-book readers such as their production, materials used, energy required for the reader’s use, and how recyclable they are.
So what’s the verdict? We still don’t know as we’re lacking a full life-cycle assessment of reading e-books using kindle or other similar electronic book readers. Until we have that, we can’t really tell if and to what extent e-books are more environmentally-friendly in comparison to paper made books.
Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the growing market of e-books, especially with the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle. It’s still a fraction in terms of market share but not for long. Many publishers also offer more and more content online for free and it seems like the digital revolution has finally made its entrance into the world of books.
I also hope to see the prices of e-book readers going down so they will be affordable to many more and not just for a relatively small number of people who can afford it. If it won’t be affordable, it cannot be a true alternative.
As I said, I don’t know if currently e-books are superior or not to paper-made books, but I’m definitely sure that better environmental performance and better pricing will come with newer generations of e-book readers and therefore I hope to see them soon.
I haven’t mentioned many other important elements such as the recycled paper, FSC certification, print on demand etc., but I do hope I managed to capture few of the key challenges that can help bring the change we’re all looking for. We, at Eco-Libris, will keep working to offer readers and businesses means to make reading more sustainable and to strive for a world where reading books doesn’t have adverse effects on the environment.