#GreenFests: Harry Potter and the Greening of the Publishing Industry

17th August 2015

The Edinburgh International Book Festival launched into action on Saturday with a hugely varied and exciting programme of events, discussing …

The Edinburgh International Book Festival launched into action on Saturday with a hugely varied and exciting programme of events, discussing everything from mental health to terrorism, drugs to the BBC. We’ll be covering many of these – especially those that engage with environmental and social sustainability – on our #GreenFests blog (so watch this space), but I thought I’d pre-empt discussions about sustainable literary content by looking behind the scenes and exploring the practical sustainability challenges facing the industry today.

According to the Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings for the U.S. Book Industry report, a carbon footprint assessment found that the entire book industry, through all steps of production, retail, and publishing activities, emits around 4kg of CO2e per book. That’s 12.3 million tons of CO2e a year in the U.S. book industry alone. Most of this comes from a loss of carbon storage capacity through deforestation (as wood fibre is required to make paper), the energy required in the manufacturing process, and emissions resulting from transportation and book decomposition in landfill.

The book industry is turning over a new leaf however (if you’ll excuse the pun), as actions are taken to reduce these impacts. A significant proportion of companies involved in book publishing and retailing now have comprehensive environmental policies that take sustainability into account every step of the way. One particularly promising trend is the increased uptake of post-consumer recycled fibre (recycled paper) for books. In 2004, only 2.5% of paper used was recycled. This had risen to 13.3% in 2007, with every sign that the trajectory would continue.

Indeed, Edinburgh can take some pride in this as it is due, in part, to the work of Edinburgh-based author J.K. Rowling, creator oUntitledf the Harry Potter series. Rowling helped to ensure that the last book in the series (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) was the most environmentally friendly in publishing history. 16 countries printed the book on eco-friendly paper, up from a single publisher in 2003, saving 197,685 trees and 7.9 million kg of greenhouse gases. This also led to many printers stocking eco-friendly papers for the first time, an initiative that has continued.

The uptake of recycled paper will also have a positive effect on the reduction of other environmental impacts as well. Making paper from recycled materials is generally a cleaner and more efficient process than making paper from virgin fibre, as much of the work of extracting and bleaching the fibres has already been done. This results in less air and water pollution, as well as a reduction in energy usage of 20-30%.

The adoption of environmentally-friendly practices makes economic, as well as environmental, sense. Whilst it is marginally more expensive to print books using non-recycled paper, the savings are minimal – especially when consumer preference is taken into consideration. Research in the Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts report mentioned earlier suggests that 79% of consumers are willing to pay more for books on recycled paper. Couple this with the more secure resource-base that recycled paper provides (several regions where book paper fibre is procured are being considered for protection and so will no longer be available to exploit) and a strong economic argument can be made.

Of course, another way to minimise the environmental impacts of the publishing industry would be to produce fewer books. The rise of e-readers and e-books is here argued by many to be a step in the right direction. However, it has also been argued that they are just as bad, if not worse, for the environment because of the emissions generated in the running of servers and the manufacturing process. The jury is still out as to which is the better approach, though see here to learn more about the discussion and the arguments on both sides.

Then there is always the old-fashioned approach of libraries. Is it really necessary for us all to own our own copies of every book? As we struggle to store our ever-increasing collections, more and more books end up being thrown away creating problems further down the line. This could be solved if only we were willing to borrow rather than buy. Unfortunately, this is getting harder to do as government austerity measures have resulted in over 324 libraries being closed since 2011, with another 500 under threat.

This doesn’t mean that eco-friendly book consumption is impossible if you don’t have access to a library. In recent years, many book swap shop facilities (Read It Swap It for example) have become available that allow you to swap one of your books for someone else’s. This is effectively the same as a library except you are also contributing to the collection and is a great way of discovering books that you might never have otherwise encountered.

If you want to learn more about sustainability and the publishing industry click here.

Also, if you have any thoughts or ideas about sustainability in the book industry or the pros and cons of e-readers and library services we’d love to hear them. Post them on our Facebook page or tweet us @CCScotland using #GreenFests.

Top image courtesy of Paul Mood

 

 

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