There are a lot of books in our house. My husband and I both love them…but, I shudder when I think about the environmental impact of our book collection. It’s also a pretty expensive habit. So as my second act of sustainability, I have decided to stop buying new books and support the city library (and used bookstores) more often. This one is particularly hard for me. It seems like bookstores are closing left and right these days (see this article about the closure of bookstores all over Toronto) and I am having an impossible time reconciling how harmful the publishing process is for our environment against how important books are for our society.
Book publishers are a large emitter of greenhouse gases (in the US the pulp and paper industry is the third largest industrial emitter according to the Green Press Initiative). From the harvesting of trees, the energy used and pollution caused by pulp and paper mills, to the transportation of books to retailers – books have a huge environmental impact. And while it’s true that many publishers are attempting to cut down on their impact, few are close to anything that could be considered a green model.
According to Eco-Libris, approximately 50% of US publishers have environmental policies in place. For the most part, these policies involve the use of chlorine-free bleach and paper certified by bodies such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), or Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) – all certifications that new raw materials have been harvested in a responsible manner (as if there isn’t enough paper in the world already!). Few large publishers use recycled, post-consumer paper, although there are exceptions like Random House and Simon & Schuster whose policies aim to increase the amount of post-consumer paper products they currently use. There are also a growing handful of smaller publishers offering books manufactured from recycled materials like Aaspirations Publishing and Chelsea Green. Many of these publishers also focus on books that highlight sustainable worldviews.
And then there are e-readers. Volumes could be written on the books vs. e-reader debate. There are definite drawbacks to reading a book electronically – you lose out on the tactile experience of reading a book, the smell of the pages. One also needs to consider the environmental impact of manufacturing an e-reader. Complex electronic devices require rare earth metals which are concentrated in finite supplies in small geographic areas, most of these rare earth metals have few or no real substitutes…basically they really are rare and this will pose very serious issues in the coming years. So I’m not suggesting that everyone should run out and buy an e-reader, however, they do provide publishers a means to continue producing books and authors a means to make a living.
Not buying new books will be tough, but from here on out it’s used books, electronic books (which I’ll be reading on devices I use for a variety of other functions), and library books for this household.