The Cost of Reading: The Book Industry’s Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint is a measure of the extent to which human activities impact greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are in turn responsible for global warming. Carbon footprint assessment generally covers emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons, but are expressed in units of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents.

The carbon footprint of a process is only partially representative of the damage it causes to the environment — it does not cover aspects such as its impact on biodiversity, or non GHG emissions. Reducing GHG emissions, is, however, an important component of the battle against climate change, and carbon footprint is an established measure for tracking an individual’s, product’s, or industry’s impact on the environment. As readers, we should care about the environmental impact of books, and the carbon footprint of publishing is a concept many of us would be interested in.

The Carbon Footprint of Publishing

A comprehensive assessment of the carbon footprint of the book industry is not easy to find. For such an analysis to be performed, information on all the steps in the process of publishing — from the procurement of wood for the production of paper to the recycling, incineration, or landfilling of a book post consumption — needs to be available. It would depend on a multitude of factors, such as the type of energy used for the production of pulp, and the distances between paper mill to printer to retail consumer.

The report estimated the total carbon footprint of the publishing industry at 12.4 million metric tons CO2 equivalents for the 4.15 billion books produced in the U.S. in 2006, or, around 3 kg CO2 equivalent per book.

A 2012 study, based on one print run of a particular book where the publisher had taken specific measures to minimize carbon footprint, estimated the carbon footprint of the paperback book to be 2.7 kg CO2 equivalent per book.

The production of print books requires paper, which is manufactured by cutting down trees that are nature’s carbon sinks. The largest component in the carbon footprint of publishing, as per the 2008 report, is forest carbon loss. The other major contributors to the carbon footprint of publishing are the emissions from the manufacture of paper in mills, emissions from the printing and binding of books, emissions from various activities at publishers’ offices and by retail sellers, and transportation emissions at different stages in the process.

Recycling a book at the end of its life could offset some of the carbon footprint of its production. If a book is sent to the landfills, it decomposes in the absence of oxygen (in anaerobic conditions) to generate methane, adding further to the book’s carbon footprint.

The Carbon Footprint of Ebooks and Ereaders

It is tempting to imagine the internet as a completely virtual affair that uses no actual resources, but that is far from the truth. The internet uses a large amount of electricity and physical infrastructure, the building or manufacturing of which results in GHG emissions. In addition to that, the devices we use to access the internet have their own considerable carbon footprints. While the carbon footprint of the production of an ereader will differ with different locations and technologies of production, the carbon footprint of a Kindle in the U.S. is around 168 kg CO2 equivalent. The environmental benefits of replacing print books with digital books are not likely to be realized when the reader only reads a limited number of books. The manufacturing and recycling of electronic goods have complications of their own, and publishing companies have yet to tackle the resource use of digital publication.

“Therefore, if you read a limited number of books, the paper book will most likely limit your GHG emissions. But for heavy readers, ebooks are most likely to limit GHG emissions.”

Anthropocene Magazine

Costs Not Included In Books’ Carbon Footprint: Loss of Biodiversity

The harvesting of forests for trees endangers biodiversity and the livelihoods of the communities dependent on them. These costs are not directly reflected in the carbon footprint of books, but have to be accounted for by publishers when choosing their paper suppliers. There are various certification systems that connect corporate buyers to responsibly sourced paper. Publishers all over the globe are striving to move to certified paper. These systems, like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), have their drawbacks. However, as pointed out by the Rainforest Action Network, establishing comprehensive and rigorous processes that make the paper supply chain transparent, and using verification tools like fiber testing, can go a long way to ensure that the paper used by a company has been responsibly sourced.

low angle photography of trees during daytime
Photo by Ed van duijn on Unsplash

What Are Publishers Doing to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint?

Most large publishing houses have formulated their own environmental policies to tackle their impact on the environment. An important part of these policies is to reduce GHG emissions and achieve carbon neutrality. Penguin Random House aims to go carbon neutral by 2030. Macmillan claims to have been carbon neutral since 2017. Hachette Book Group had a target of reducing carbon emissions by 2.5% each year for the period 2017–2020, which they did not meet in 2020, since 95% of their carbon emissions come from paper, and 2020 saw a rise in demand for printed books.

Publishers apply various strategies to reduce their carbon footprints, including investment in renewable energy for warehouses and office spaces, choosing paper suppliers to minimize impact on the environment, and making sustainable choices for shipping. Against the remaining inevitable GHG emissions publishers can purchase carbon offsets, through which companies can invest in projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and compensate for the emissions from their activities. The due diligence in the choice of carbon offset to invest in is important, in order to ensure that the project that is being invested in does, in fact, benefit the environment.

Another aspect of reducing the carbon footprint of publishing is reducing waste or unsold stock. While most major publishers are still printing to inventory, many printing companies, including HP, Ingram, and Amazon, provide print on demand services to publishers and authors self publishing their works. Print on demand reduces returns, and can reduce transportation emissions by moving the printing process to a printing facility near the consumer.

The major chunk of the impact of publishing on the environment comes from the production of paper. An obvious way to go about avoiding cutting down forests for books is to use recycled paper. Opting for recycled fibers has not been straightforward for publishers, though some smaller publishers have managed to prioritize post-consumer waste recycled fiber by making use of their relationships with specific mills and printers who can supply enough paper for their smaller print runs. On a larger scale, there are several potential roadblocks to the use of recycled fibers in books, including concerns about quality, the difficulty of avoiding contamination from single stream recovery and mixed waste processing plants, closure of de-inking facilities in the U.S., and so on. Innovation and investment in waste segregation and recycling techniques seems to be the need of the hour in order to make a significant dent in the use of virgin fibers for the manufacture of books.

Transparency regarding environmental impacts is important to ensure accountability. We as readers can demand publishers be transparent about their carbon footprints, and push them to continue to take stringent measures to reduce emissions from their activities.

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