Is your love of books hurting the environment?
Don’t get me wrong—we at TCK Publishing love books. We wouldn’t be doing what we do if we didn’t!
But part of our responsibility as citizens of the planet is to be aware of when things we love might have unintended consequences.
If you love to read, I’m guessing you also value knowledge, truth, and a commitment to doing the right thing—even when it’s not easy.
Books are amazing things—they allow us to peer into others’ thought processes or imaginations; share our dreams, visions, goals, and insights; and transform the world around us through education and stories.
Whether in print or digital form, books are magical.
They have some downsides, though, especially in printed form.
The Environmental Impact of Print Books
Did you know that more than 2 billion books are printed in the United States alone each year?
Creating all those books requires more than 30 million trees. That’s enough trees to fill 37,000 football fields—that’s almost 60 square miles, or nearly the size of Washington, DC.
And paper manufacturing is the third-largest user of fossil fuels worldwide, requiring significant amounts of oil and gas at many phases of the process of turning trees into books.
Now, this would all be fine if every book that was printed was read, enjoyed, loved, and passed on to someone else.
But that’s not at all how the book industry works.
The sad truth is that around 10 million of the trees that are killed to create books die in vain each year, because the books end up getting destroyed instead of read.
What Is Pulping?
When a traditional large book publisher decides to release a book, they estimate about how many copies they’ll sell, and then add a margin of error.
This is because they want to take advantage of economies of scale by printing lots and lots of books at once, bringing the cost per copy down to a dollar or less.
Most of the time, though, those tens of thousands of copies don’t all get sold.
Sometimes books are left in the publisher’s warehouse, never even ordered or shipped to customers. These completely unused books may be remaindered, meaning that they’re sold to a specialty business that discounts them and sells them to consumers.
If you’ve ever shopped the discount area at Barnes & Noble, found a former bestseller on the rack at a dollar store, or gone to a clearance bookshop that sells some new, marked-down books, you’ve run into remaindered books.
These books aren’t contributing to landfills or waste problems—they’re still being read and enjoyed, just at a steep discount.
But what about the books that left the publisher’s warehouse and went to bookstores?
That’s where we run into problems.
If a bookstore can’t sell its copies of a book, it’s entitled to request a full refund from the publisher.
However, shipping books is expensive—so instead of sending the books back, bookstores often rip the covers off and send only those back to the publisher as proof that the book has been taken out of circulation. In other cases, they rip off the cover and send the now-unsellable book back.
Either way, that book can now never be sold, because it’s so severely damaged.
Those damaged books are then pulped: ground up, mixed with certain chemicals, and recycled into paper for other uses.
This is better than just tossing them in a landfill, of course (especially since more than 25% of the landfill waste in the U.S. is made up of paper products!)—but it’s still not exactly “environmentally friendly.”
The paper recycling process involves a lot of power (typically generated from coal, natural gas, or other fossil fuel sources) and also a lot of chemicals like bleaches and solvents meant to break the paper down so that it can be cleaned, processed, and made into new products.
That’s right: every year we’re destroying more than 16,000 truckloads of books—enough to fill both the British Library and the Library of Congress twice—that were never even read once.
And that means about 10 million trees are killed each year for no good reason other than “that’s the way we do things in the publishing business.”
Is that really how we want to do things?
What Can Be Done to Make Books More Environmentally Friendly?
Take a deep breath, fellow book lover. All is not lost!
It’s still possible to enjoy books and reading, no matter what format you prefer, without contributing to this problem.
1. Try Digital Reading
The easiest way to stop the destructive cycle and practice sustainable reading is to read in digital format.
iPads, Kindles, and other e-reader devices do have a carbon footprint and an environmental cost (including the electricity necessary to charge them up)—and it can be a big one. However, studies have shown that the more you read on an e-reader, the lower the environmental impact.
So basically, if you’re an avid reader and want to help the environment, you’re best off switching to ebooks. Reading 60 or more books over the lifetime of your Kindle or iPad makes it more environmentally friendly than reading the same number of print books.
2. Choose Sustainable Book Printing Options
Some of us, though, just have to have our print books. There’s something about the feeling of holding a book, turning the pages, and smelling that new-book smell that can’t be matched, no matter how convenient or environmentally friendly ebooks are.
Thankfully, there are sustainable options for print book lovers!
Support Your Local Library
The most sustainable option for the print lover is the library. Because the books are lent out and read time and time again, the resources that went into making a book are maximized when you use the library.
Used books are another great option. If you want to build your collection at home instead of borrowing books from the library, considering buying gently used books from your local bookstore (especially if you can walk there!) or from an online used book seller.
Many local bookshops also have book buy-back programs, where they’ll give you store credit if you return your gently used, pre-read books to the store for their used book section. This is a fantastic way to keep books out of the landfill and to ensure that they’re passed on and loved…while getting to fill your shelves some more!
After you’ve finished reading a book, please consider using one of these buy-back programs or donating it to your local library, Goodwill, or another charity that will ensure the books are read and enjoyed again instead of being thrown in the trash.
If you simply must have new print books, consider choosing books from publishers that use print-on-demand (POD) technology like we do at TCK Publishing.
This is a more sustainable publishing option than what huge traditional publishers use for new releases.
Instead of printing tens of thousands of copies in the hopes that they’ll all sell, then destroying 30-40% of those books, publishers can use POD to print only the books that have actually sold to customers.
Basically, when a customer places an order, the publisher’s supply chain kicks into action. The order is passed on to the printer, which creates the book on special high-speed digital presses. The finished book is then packed and shipped, using a minimum of excess packaging, straight to the buyer.
The process uses relatively eco-friendly dry inks (instead of the sometimes toxic wet inks used in traditional mass-run printing) and it reduces waste to nearly nothing.
Better still, many POD suppliers are making significant efforts to “green” their processes and supply chains.
Many POD suppliers are committed to recycling as much of their facility’s waste as possible (and they produce significantly less waste per book than a traditional printer). Several, like Ingram, also have key sustainability certifications, like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or the Forest Stewardship Council. These certifications help ensure that the printer is dedicated to responsible management of our tree and forest resources—the groups that provide the certifications help protect against illegal logging, promote tree-planting initiatives, and work for fair industry wages.
Other POD suppliers are working to incorporate more recycled materials into their supply chains. For instance, the books we publish are printed on heavy, aesthetically pleasing paper that is made of 30% post-consumer recycled content.
If you’re not sure if a book you’re considering is environmentally friendly, you can check the front and back of the book—on the first or last few pages, you may find the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or Forest Stewardship Council statements or logos, or you may find a statement about the amount of recycled paper content in the book. Not all publishers who do practice sustainable printing do this—it’s not a necessary badge and some printers and publishers prefer not to use the extra pages or ink.
You can also contact the publisher directly to ask about their environmental practices. If it’s a small publisher, you’ll often get a prompt, personal response. Large publishers like the Big Five may not respond, but you can look for a corporate responsibility statement online that may give you some of this information. Just search for “publisher name + corporate responsibility”.
The TCK Commitment
We’ve made a commitment to reducing our environmental footprint and being good stewards of our planet. At TCK Publishing, we believe loving books means loving our planet, too!
We publish all of our books in digital format and encourage people to download and read on their favorite devices—you don’t have to buy a new iPad or e-reader to read an ebook; you can read it on your phone or laptop using the Kindle app or other free ebook reading software. That reduces the need to create new gadgets and ship them all over the globe.
We also offer our print books in a more sustainable format, using 30% post-consumer recycled content in most. And all of our books are printed using high-quality on-demand digital technology, reducing the ink, electricity, paper, and overall carbon footprint required to produce a book.
Our books are only printed when they’re ordered, so we’re not destroying millions of books every year because of a miscalculation in ordering or a disappointing book launch.
We want you to enjoy a great book that can change your life.
We also want to preserve and protect this wonderful world we live in.
We believe in giving you a choice of what to read and how to read it, and we want you to feel good about the books you buy.
Here’s to reading sustainably!
Eco-Friendly Publishing at a Glance
For more on how you can make a difference in your world, read on!
- 3-Step Action Plan to Overhaul Your Mindset for Success
- How to Leave a Lasting Impression by Building Your Authentic Author Brand
- Change Your Mindset, Eliminate Anxiety and Overcome Your Fears with Joseph Clough
Kate Sullivan is an editor with experience in every aspect of the publishing industry, from editorial to marketing to cover and interior design.
In her career, Kate has edited millions of words and helped dozens of bestselling, award-winning authors grow their careers and do what they love!