Is print publishing an environmental catastrophe?
This article, about sustainable publishing, provides an overview of the environmental benefits of ebooks, and offers ideas and resources for reducing print publishing's environmental impact.
Ebooks save trees. That is one of the many environmental benefits of digital publishing and reading. A larger list of the environmental benefits of reading ebooks includes:
- saving trees;
- reducing paper consumption;
- saving energy used in book production;
- eliminating packaging materials, and all the energy and cash costs associated with those materials;
- saving fuel used for transporting paper books: from the printing company to the warehouse, and then from the warehouse to the customer;
- eliminating the pollution caused by producing and shipping books;
- reducing the energy, cash costs, and pollution required to dispose of books;
- saving money. These days, money is a "scarce green resource." If the 2 billion books sold in the USA last year had been sold as ebooks — at five dollars less per book — we might have saved about 10 billion dollars.
Environmental Benefits of Free Ebooks
In just over three years (the 37 months from July 4, 2006 to August 4, 2009) more than 200 million free ebooks were downloaded from two websites: Project Gutenberg (PG), and the World Public Library's annual event, the World eBook Fair (WEF).
Had these 200 million books been made made of paper, how many trees would have been saved?
Let's do some math. In the USA in one year, 2 billion books are produced. To get the paper for these books requires consuming 32 million trees. We can estimate that one tree yields enough paper for 62.5 books. (Of course, these numbers vary depending on which expert you choose to believe.)
The 200 million free ebooks downloaded from Project Gutenberg and the WEF saved three million and two hundred thousand (3,200,000) trees.
This number (200 million free ebooks downloaded) is from two free ebook sources only; there are many other sources of free ebooks, including Google Books, the Internet Archive, Feedbooks, Manybooks, Scribd, and many more.
Paper and Newspapers
Every year, the world produces more than 300 million tons of paper. Books are not the only source of paper consumption.
How many trees are used to produce on week's worth of paper for the Sunday edition of the New York Times newspaper?
- One Sunday issue of the New York Times consumes 75,000 trees.
- One year of Sunday newspapers , produced by the New York Times, is responsible for the destruction and consumption of more than 3,900,000 trees.
The newspaper industry in the USA, each year, consumes 95 million trees.
And is the U.S. recycling all its paper? ... Hardly. According the website Rainforestmaker.org, 40 percent of our garbage is paper and paper products.
The Impact of Published Books
There's an old story about a man who was trying to save money for his company. Instead of taking the bus to work, every day he walked. After a year, he told his boss that he had saved the company more than one thousand dollars.
The boss replied: "You are fired!"
"What?" said the loyal employee. "I didn't take the bus for a year and I saved the company more than a thousand bucks!"
"That's right!" said the boss. "But if you would have not taken a taxi cab to work for a year, you would have saved us thousands more!"
Similarly, we of course cannot assume that every free ebook downloaded means that the person downloading the ebook would have bought a paper copy. In this section we focus on paper books that have been actually sold.
(Note: At this time we are not examining the environmental impact of dedicated ebook reading devices. Most people now are reading ebooks on their desktop or laptop computers, or on iPhones, iPod Touches, or mobile devices that they already own.)
How many trees are used to make books published in the USA?
The blog Eco-libris tells us that the book publishing industry in the USA uses 16 million tons of paper every year. They estimate that about 20 trees yield one ton of paper. Therefore, the USA book publishing industry consumes 32 million trees per year.
In addition to the paper for the books, there are many other cash and environmental costs of book production, described in the beginning of this article.
According the website of the Green Press Initiative (more about the GPI, below),
"The U.S. book and newspaper industries combined require the harvest of 125 million trees each year and emit over 40 million metric tons of CO2 annually; equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of 7.3 million cars."
Ten Steps For Sustainable Publishing
I love paper books, and I am not calling for a boycott. Instead, let us find a more thoughtful approach to paper book and periodical publishing, an approach that might be called "sustainable publishing."
There are many ways that publishers can make book publishing more environmentally friendly. Readers should be aware of these options, and support publishers who are practicing them.
1. Offer a Cost-effective and Environmentally-Friendly Option: Ebooks
Print publishers can offer ebook versions of their paper books -- in universal formats such as PDF and EPUB -- at a lower price than the paper editions.
This is not only a sound environmental practice, it is a forward-thinking business strategy for the future. O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly recently wrote:
"We are no longer a print publisher that happens to sell digital books too. We're a digital publisher that also sells print books. All publishing is now digital publishing, and all writing is writing for the Web. Books must behave like the web they're now a part of."
Book buyers do not need any special devices to read ebooks. Ebooks can be read on your personal computer, or on your Smartphone or iPhone, or iPod Touch.
Multi-purpose ebook reading devices are coming in the future, devices that would do more than just read ebooks. For a glimpse into that possible future, take a look at this French video, with English subtitles.
Note: the first 60 seconds of this video are blank: it gets better after that.
2. Buy and Sell Books Using Print on Demand.
Instead of printing thousands of books at once from a printer (a book printing company), a publisher or an author can use a Print-On-Demand (P.O.D.) company, such as Lulu or Lightning Source. P.O.D. is a method for printing and binding books (using a digital printing machine) as they are ordered, one book at a time. For most books, the quality of P.O.D. now equals the quality of books printed from an offset press. P.O.D. not only reduces the risks of unsold books, it saves energy and costs regarding shipping and transportation of the books sold. The P.O.D. books are not shipped to a warehouse, they are shipped directly from "the factory" to the customer.
This will become an even more viable option when P.O.D. technology advances, so that we see a steep fall in the price per printed book.
3. Use 100% Recycled Paper In Your Paper Books.
Book buyers: Tell your publisher and bookstore owner that you would prefer to buy books printed on 100% recycled paper.
Publishers: Ask your printing company about their options for recycled paper. For more information about recycled paper, a great place to begin is the Green Peace Book Campaign
4. Join the Green Press Initiative.
The Green Press Initiative (GPI) is an invaluable resource for everyone in the book industry. Individuals and businesses may join for a reasonable yearly fee.
According to their website:
"Green Press Initiative (GPI) is a non-profit program which takes a collaborative approach towards working with publishers, printers, paper manufacturers and others in the book and newspaper industries to minimize social and environmental impacts, including impacts on endangered forests, impacts on climate change, and impacts on communities where paper fiber is sourced."
GPI members not only use recycled paper, they use paper that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC paper is made from trees that are not grown in endangered forests.
Currently, more than 180 book publishers have joined GPI -- these are many of the large publishers, comprising 42% of the market share of in the U.S. book publishing industry.
5. Support Your Local Book Exchange or Library Book Sale
At the town dump in Greenwich, Connecticut, there is a shed where dump patrons can donate books, or take them home. It is a free bookstore.
Another way to reuse unwanted paper books is to donate them to your local library book sale.
6. Ensure that your unsold books are reused or recycled, not banished to a landfill.
It is difficult to find information about the fate of America's unsold books. That makes me suspect the worst: there are a lot of them, and they are not being recycled.
In the Netherlands, every year, more than a million paper books are shredded, and transformed into toilet paper.
The book Thirteen Moons was published in October 2006. It was written by Charles Frazier, whose first novel, Cold Mountain, enjoyed a stunning success. A bidding war for Thirteen Moons had resulted in a cash advance for the author of more than 8 million dollars. From the initial print run of 750,000 books, about 368,000 books were sold. The publishers lost 5.5 million dollars.
Who knows the fate of the remaining books?
7. Support the unofficial standard Ebook Format: Unencrypted EPUB
Ebooks were never meant to be hidden like the lost city of Atlantis, buried like the treasures of Monte Cristo, or guarded like the gold in Fort Knox.
Unfortunately, many ebooks are sold in proprietary formats that prevent sharing. Even the new format, EPUB, that is quickly becoming the industry standard format, may be unfriendly for sharing, if the EPUB is encrypted with DRM.
Before buying an ebook, check with the publisher or ebook seller about your rights to reuse the work.
8. Support Your Local Library
Sometimes it's better to borrow than to buy.
9. For each paper book bought or sold, plant a tree.
Book buyers and publishers should consider planting one tree for every book bought or sold.
To plant your own trees, get advice from the Arbor Day Foundation; or Trees Forever.
The United Nations will be happy to plant some trees for you, through their excellent project:
Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign
From the website:
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has launched a major worldwide tree planting campaign. Under the Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign, people, communities, business and industry, civil society organizations and governments are encouraged to enter tree planting pledges online with the objective of planting at least one billion trees worldwide each year. In a call to further individual and collective action, UNEP has set a new goal of planting 7 billion trees by the end of 2009. The campaign strongly encourages the planting of indigenous trees and trees that are appropriate to the local environment.
10. For each *ebook* sold, plant a tree.
Why not plant a tree for every ebook sold?
And plant a tree for every free ebook downloaded?
Learn More About Sustainable Publishing and Sustainable Living
For sources of this article, and for more information about green living and sustainable publishing, see our page of resources. (Which will be linked here, and coming soon!)
Page of Resources: Coming Soon.
The image of chopped tree trunks (which we have remixed onto the book) comes to us courtesy of the photographer Wagner T. Cassimiro.
— Michael Pastore, a long-time advocate for the sustainable society, is a novelist and a non-fiction author who lives in Ithaca, New York. His latest book is 50 Benefits of Ebooks: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Digital Reading Revolution. Pastore is the Editorial Director of Zorba Press.