What is the Carbon Footprint of Your Paperback Book?
Last week I wrote a blog post pointing out 5 areas that Independent Bookstores can take control of their carbon emissions and start their green business journey. In that post, I mentioned how complex the publishing industry is, and that this can make it difficult for booksellers and readers to feel like they have any power in making their beloved hobby more environmentally friendly.
I decided that I should look into this more, because how complex could the publishing industry be really? Surely we can find somehow for us book lovers to push for more sustainable supply chains and business practices that benefit everyone? Well, I can tell you, even as someone with a smattering of knowledge about life-cycle analysis, I was not expecting the swamp of information on this topic.
What I realized is doing the detective work of finding all the necessary information to do a proper life-cycle analysis of physical books (or even e-readers), has been attempted by multiple people over the last decade, with highly variable results. These results vary based on country, extent of the life-cycle included in the analysis, and availability of actual industry data (turns out the paper and publishing industry isn’t exactly the most transparent in the world). Mike Berners-Lee in his book “How Bad are Bananas?” estimates that a paperback book that weighs 250 grams and is printed on a mix of virgin and recycled pulp will have an average carbon footprint of 1 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Even this estimate, he admits, hosts numerous assumptions like 60% of the total printed books getting sold (a rather high estimate), and excludes aspects of the book’s lifecycle like the energy used to type the book on a computer. His estimate doubles to 2kg CO2e when the book is printed on thick virgin paper and only 50% of total books printed are sold, with the remainder pulped. Based on these numbers, we can see that it isn’t as simple as picking any book up off of a shelf or an order list and knowing that it likely had such-and-such carbon footprint. Each print run of each book has a different footprint, and getting into the weeds of such things strikes me as an unnecessary pursuit of perfection.
So, I don’t think I can provide a super in-depth discussion on the ‘true carbon footprint’ of physical books for you today. I may be able to do so with a couple months of research, and if you are interested in such a thing, I suggest you start with Dealva Jade Dowd-Hinkle’s master’s thesis on the topic from 2012. What we can do is take a look at the supply chain of physical books, where environmental impact needs to be addressed, and how we can start pushing the industry in the right direction.
The supply chain of a physical book starts with paper production. The impacts of paper production on the environment can vary widely depending on where the trees were cut for the paper, how it was milled and produced, the carbon intensity of the electricity network the paper plant uses to power their production, etc. The main takeaway for those of us who are not in the paper production industry is to pay attention to whether the printer or publisher uses paper from third-party certified paper mills. Certifications such as the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) will be listed on the publisher’s or printer’s website if they make use of it. If they don’t list any third-party certification, make sure to ask and be wary of any claims they may make.
Another thing to keep an eye out for with paper production is the amount of post-consumer recycled paper that is used in the process. Post-consumer recycled is a term used to describe a product that it made of (at least in part - the percentage should be listed on the product) materials that were once used by a consumer, diverted from landfill, recycled, and then made into the current product you now have. If you see a listing for recycled paper content, the recycled materials were more likely to have been “pre-consumer”, meaning it was diverted from the landfill before it ever even got to the shelves for consumers to make use of.
Another major area of avoidable emissions in the publishing industry is the still common practice of printing way too many books in order to make use of economies of scale, and the aftermath of doing this. Essentially, printing books costs the publisher (or author if you are self publishing) a certain amount of money per book, but this cost goes way down if they print in bulk numbers. So, to take advantage of this, the publisher (especially large publishers) will print larger print runs than may be needed. Big chain bookstores may also be complicit in this, because they can return any unsold book to the publisher at the end of the selling period, which are then recycled (or pulped), requiring more energy to transport and re-process those books.
This practice of over-printing books is avoidable with the growing popularity of print-on-demand services that some publishers are providing. A common place practice for indie-authors and publishers who cater to them like IngramSpark, print-on-demand reduces the carbon footprint of the publishing industry by only printing books that are needed. So, as booksellers, authors, and readers, we can help move the trend forward by prioritizing print-on-demand as our preferred method of getting books, and asking the tough questions of publishers what their plans are for reducing and offsetting emissions that result from returning unsold books for pulping.
There is some great news for the carbon footprint of a paperback book for readers, and that is that the carbon footprint per person is easily reduced by making sure that we share, re-sell, and borrow used books as much as possible. By far the least carbon intensive way to read physical books is to borrow from your local library, which has innumerable other benefits for your local community. However, if you insist on owning your own books (which I confess I tend to do with my favorites), prioritizing buying used books and sharing with people in your friend-circle can make sure that more people get to make use of that resource. You can also ask your local library to stock books from your favorite authors so that people can access them there (this supports your favorite authors too - so they aren’t losing out!). For book-sellers, I suggest including a gently used book section to your bookstore if you haven’t already to help promote this practice and reduce the carbon footprint of your stock.
I will end this post by revisiting an important concept that I think all businesses should employ in their green business journey: improvement is more important than perfection. We all need to strive to reduce our carbon footprint as fast as possible, and it can become paralyzing to focus on getting perfect results right away. As long as we all take a hard look at the industry that we work in and start taking real action and responsibility for the carbon footprint and environmental impacts it causes, we can make a difference.
If you are an independent bookstore owner and want to know more about what you can do to reduce your business’ carbon footprint, check out last week’s blog post about 5 ways to reduce your bookstore’s carbon footprint.