Are Books (and E-Books) Green?

There are plenty of books out now teaching us to respect the environment. But do they do it themselves? The question of whether books are “green” tends to make readers more than a little uncomfortable, because much as we all love the feel of leafing through a book, hey, that’s a lot of trees. So, just how environmentally friendly are books? Here’s what you need to know (thanks to our Production Manager, Danny, for the full rundown):

1. Books are meant to be kept. On the pro side, books have a rather longer shelf life than, well, most things. They don’t need to be thrown out when we’re done with them, won’t break or expire. And if you don’t want them, there’s always a need for them somewhere else – a school or local library – so books don’t end up in landfills like most other things. That’s good.

2. The paper used in the manufacturing process comes from trees meant for paper. Book paper mostly comes from tree farms, not irreplaceable 500-year-old trees. Tree farms feature fast-growing, replenishable trees that are less expensive to log and maintain, and easier to implement in an industrialized setting.

Still, tree farms are no perfect solution. They take up lots of room, and don’t usually occur naturally. That means that at best, their existence adversely affects local ecosystems; at worst, true rainforests are chopped down to make room for them. Bottom line: paper is a precious resource, and there is no easy or consequence-free way to get it.

What about books printed on recycled paper, you ask? Well, recycled paper can be a good option, but it’s not a total solution:

3. Not all recycled paper is created equal. Most people think that if a product is made of recycled paper, it is paper that was used before, presumably for a similar product. However, materials made from products already in final form are called postconsumer waste, and they are only one element in recycled paper. Another is preconsumer waste– fibers, pulp, and similar byproducts of the original paper-making process. To be called “recycled,” paper must include a minimum percentage of postconsumer waste, but not all paper contains the same mix.

4. Postconsumer waste doesn’t happen naturally. Papers that have been printed on before – in other words, what becomes postconsumer waste- must be de-inked. This is especially the case with papers printed on using color inks. No matter the method, there is at least one byproduct of this process: ink. Where does it go? The same place all our trash goes: into our atmosphere, soil, and even water. In that sense, even recycled paper leaves its mark.

5. E-Books aren’t perfect either. E-books will certainly use less paper and save trees, but, as with most solutions, they also carry their own set of problems. As Steven Livingston cautions in a recent Washington Post article, it’s hard to calculate the full environmental impact that e-books will have. In addition to the energy required to use an e-reader, there are the materials that e-readers are made with (and that may end up in landfills one day), the costs of manufacturing and shipping them, and the server farms that allow e-books to be downloaded, which consume massive amounts of energy. One environmental journalist even proposes that a person must read 100 e-books for the environmental costs to break even.

Bottom line? No book, whether recycled, electronic, or old-fashioned paper, is 100% environmentally friendly. But books do have benefits that are harder to quantify but equally important: the best books, whether explicitly about the environment or not, teach us to be thoughtful and compassionate. And that’s where environmental protection starts, hopefully: with the realization that our actions make an impact and that we are responsible to other people.

Meanwhile, visit your local library, one of the few solutions with no downside! One book for 40 or 50 readers- now that’s resourcefulness.

As for us, here at Lee & Low we’re trying an experiment of our own. May I announce to you our newest office addition:

Seed PaperFound this neato seed paper that’s just like regular paper – you can print on it, cut it, make little origami frogs out of it- but you can also PLANT IT! And it’s full of wildflower seeds that will, theoretically, grow!

We’ve put it by the window and will update the blog as it (*fingers crossed*) sprouts. Maybe plantable paper is the future of green books?

3 thoughts on “Are Books (and E-Books) Green?”

  1. I love the idea of seed paper, except in books that I’ll want to keep for a while–what if they get too close to the window? Will Vashta Narada sprout from them?! 😉

  2. Yeah, think books made out of seed paper would be excessive, and impermanent. But it’s great for cover letters and pub slips that get sent out with advanced copies!

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