How Sustainable is Reading? - Murielle Müller

As my gaze wanders from the news of burning forests to the books on my shelves, I feel a twinge in my heart, and I begin to wonder how sustainable reading really is. How can you be eco-conscious when you are an avid reader with many books? Throughout my research, I come to the conclusion that the options and the subsequent choice between e-reading devices and books must be made carefully, but that there are also a few alternative possibilities to lower your impact on the environment as a book-lover.

Let’s take a look at our options – and no, not reading at all isn’t an option! E-book reading devices, such as an e-reader, an iPad, tablet, or sometimes a laptop, are produced by using non-renewable resources. The production of an e-book uses energy and electricity, and we also have to factor in packaging, transport, and importation of the device. When the reader eventually is in your hands, it doesn’t magically run by itself, but needs more electricity. The production of one e-reader uses about 33 pounds of minerals compared to the 2/3rds of a pound that are used to produce the good old paper book. The problem with these minerals is also often where they are sourced. As you might guess, the sources for minerals are often less privileged, conflict-ridden countries.

However, classical book print is not that eco-friendly as well. More than 2 billion books are printed each year in the U.S., (let alone the entire world) and 100 million trees are harvested every year for the production of books and newspapers in the U.S., not even beginning to cover all of the water these processes waste. It’s thus no surprise that paper manufacturing belongs to the three largest sectors of the world using fossil fuels. While that is already saddening, it would be more okay if every book that is printed was actually read, appreciated and passed on to other readers. But that is rarely the case: about 10 million of the trees chopped off to create books die for nothing because the books get destroyed in the end. But how come?

Traditional large book publishers usually make an estimation of how many copies a certain book will sell. They add a margin of error and then, most often, a certain number of the copies doesn’t get sold. When a bookstore is subsequently faced with left-over copies that nobody wants to buy, they can request a refund from the publisher, but as shipping is expensive, bookstores – brace yourselves, I did not know that this was a thing and it breaks my heart– tear off the covers and send either these or the “stripped” book back to the publishers (as proof of them taking the books out of circulation, or in other words, murdering the books). Even if sometimes books may be remaindered, so sold to a specialty business that discounts them and sells them to consumers, most of the time, they are taken out of circulation without ever having been read and end up getting pulped, meaning they get shredded and mixed with a bunch of chemicals, and thereby recycled into paper for other uses. That might still be better than just throwing them into a landfill, but it isn’t really eco-friendly as the process of recycling paper needs a lot of energy (and no, that usually is not green energy), and lots of chemicals are used to bleach and clean the paper so that it can become a white canvas again.

On the other hand, turning towards e-reding devices again, we’ve got a massive problem with electronic waste. It is again an increasing issue in lesser privileged countries because privileged countries ship their waste there. Furthermore, recycling of these devices is an onerous process because of the many small pieces installed in the devices, and workers are exposed to toxins.

To break even between e-reader and printed books, the numbers differ with regard to the focus. According to the New York Times, looking at the use of fossil fuels, water and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader equals 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s about a hundred books and with consequences on human health, it’s somewhere in between. In 2008 the Book Industry Environmental Council (BIEC) approved a proposal supporting a goal of 20% reduction in U.S. book industry greenhouse gas emission by 2020, with the intent of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. The BIEC’s focus is an increase of the sustainability of both printed and/or electronic books.

So in general, there seems to be a point when an e-reader becomes the more sustainable way of reading, factoring in the production, transportation and longevity of the product, but it is hard to pinpoint the exact number of books per month that you have to read at which an e-reader is officially more sustainable because it is very individual and tied to your reading habits, as for example time of usage also play a role. Do you read a book at night when you have to power a lightbulb or during the day? Do you use the Internet on your e-reading device? Do you order books online? Do you share your e- reading device with other people in your household? One thing is for sure: if you invest in an e-reader, use it to its full extent because just like with everything, if you buy new, you are adding to the burden on the environment.

If, like me, you cannot completely forgo buying new books, the smell of it or whatever it is that you love about books, you can at least make sure to buy from the right publishers. The thing you should look out for is the FSC logo. FSC is the acronym for Forest Stewardship Council, which is a non-profit global forest certification system. The FSC logo shows you that most of the book or even the entire book is made from sustainably sourced, eco-friendly managed, FSC certified forests around the world. Go check out your own bookshelf-- I was surprised to see how many of my books have that little logo. Many major publishers have the goal to become more sustainable and carbon neutral within the next ten years.

Alternatively, you can also choose books from publishers that print-on-demand (POD). These publishers only print on demand, as the name obviously says, instead of printing an abundance of copies hoping to sell them and having to destroy more than 30% later on because they did not sell. POD only prints what they actually sell as the publisher’s supply chain only kicks into action when a customer places the order for the book, and many POD suppliers are currently trying to further green-ify their processes.

However, the most sustainable thing you can do is to share and swap books with friends and family, buy used books from your local secondhand store, and walk to the library.

One last thing: Don’t quit reading. Even though this is a lot, and governments are slow, and you sometimes also feel like the world is just falling apart and burning to the ground, reading might make you more sustainable if you read the right books. You can contribute a lot if you educate yourself about the climate crisis, understand the structures and politics behind a variety of issues, and learn how to live sustainably in other areas of your life.

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