How Publishers are Responding to the Environmental Impact of Books

Our consumption of books has steadily increased over the centuries since Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press in 1450. Each year, around 2.2 million books are now produced, distributed, and sold, and publishers’ awareness of how that impacts the environment is now growing.

In this month’s blog, I take a little look at how books have an environmental impact and what publishers are doing to address their target of reaching net zero by 2040.

The Use of Recycled Paper in Publishing

First, lets address the obvious – the number of trees that must be felled to meet our voracious appetite for books. “Use recycled paper, stupid,” I hear you shout. But is it that clear cut? Ignoring for a moment the environmental impact of the recycling factory and transport, would the use of recycled paper make publishers green because of a resulting slowdown in deforestation?

The main issue here is longevity: every time a sheet of paper is recycled, the fibres become shorter and worn, meaning paper can’t be recycled more than seven times. The result? If the world relied on 100% recycled paper, we would run out in only three months.

The answer is therefore to use paper that’s a mix of recycled paper and fresh, and the publishing industry therefore cannot avoid a reliance on virgin paper production. What’s important is therefore to ensure the new paper pulp comes from renewable sources so that it doesn’t contribute to deforestation.

The next question is whether the production of recycled paper does actually result in less CO2 emission than manufacturing new paper. And it’s not that obvious.

The Environmental Impact of Paper Production

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Penguin Random House (PRH) organised a large study into the impact of publishing on the environment, looking at the complete chain from felling a tree to disposal of “dead” books. Their most interesting and surprising discovery was that the book with the lowest total start-to-finish environmental impact was actually one made with paper from one particular paper mill that produced virgin paper rather than recycled. They found the reason was that the main contributor to CO2 emissions is the energy required to produce the paper in the first place. PRH discovered that Holmen’s paper mill in Hallsta, Sweden, causes zero CO2 emissions because it was powered purely from green energy – power derived from sources such as hydro-electric generation, wind, and solar.

The second best source of paper was found to be recycled paper coming from an Austrian site.

But it’s not only the factory itself that has a bearing on CO2 emissions; the complete end-to-end chain must be considered. And this, again, was where the Hallsta paper mill had an advantage because it was well sited to minimise the emissions caused by transport: moving input material and finished paper by rail rather than road reduces overall emissions.

Producing Paper from Renewable Sources

So, if the above conclusion is that there are several reasons why the manufacture of virgin paper is necessary (we’ll come to the alternative of Kindle and e-readers in a moment), it becomes critical to consider the source of the trees being used to ensure the environmental impact of that part of process is also minimised.

Making paper only from wood that’s FSC certified (Forestry Stewardship Council) is clearly an essential step because it ensures the wood comes only from renewable resources and that the paper manufacturing process does not cause pollution. Penguin Random House proudly announces that 100% of its paper is now FSC certified. In fact, I noticed that the Simon Kernick book I’m currently reading (published by Arrow Books, a PRH imprint) has the FSC stamp on the copyright page.

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My own publisher, as do many small publishers, relies heavily on Amazon KDP for printing. While this has the advantage that books are only printed in the quantities required so there are no concerns about wastage, Amazon does not declare its paper to be 100% FSC certified. One author queried this with Amazon and received the response that Amazon does use paper from FSC-certified sources; but is that 100% of their paper? Who knows?

The Impact of Printing Ink on the Environment

But it isn’t only the paper that is important. Ink, too, has an environmental impact, and the best solution isn’t immediately obvious. Yes, soya-based inks look like the best way forward (biodegradable, more energy-efficient to produce, and less toxic) but the complete life-cycle needs to be considered (soya, by the way, acts as the medium that carries the pigment in the ink and then dries off to leave the pigment and any additives on the page). But the ink reservoirs need to be cleaned after use, which calls for the use of Volatile Organic Compounds; and the best cleaning solution can vary with the type of ink. Publishers need to pick an ink that provides a good print on the particular paper that’s chosen for the book, while ensuring that the overall impact of the paper, the ink itself, and the cleaning process is the lowest possible. It’s a balancing act.

The Environmental Impact of Kindle and Other E-Readers

So is the solution for turning the publishing industry green to get customers to switch entirely to using Kindle or other e-book readers? Even here, the answer is not straightforward.

The advantage is that there’s no paper production or printing (except for packaging) and no need to ship books from the printers to the warehouse, nor is there a requirement to transport remaindered copies for pulping. However, CustomWise estimated that manufacturing a Kindle e-reader releases 29.5 kg of CO2 and consumes 100 kWh of energy. And to that we need to add the power to keep it charged over a 3-year life span. Over the life time on an i-pad, it has been estimated that 130 kg of CO2 will have been emitted (45% of which comes for its manufacture, 49% for the energy to use it, and 6% on transport and processing the e-waste at the end of its life).

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Furthermore, e-readers require materials such as tantalum, lithium and rare metals that come from countries were workers are unfairly and unhealthily treated, and the mining, refining, and shipping of those materials to the manufacturing sites have a noticeable environmental impact.

On top of that, there’s the environmental impact of all those power-hungry servers around the world (to provide the necessary download capability) and the powerful air conditioning to keep them cool. Don’t forget, also, the energy required to power the computers used for editing and setting-out the book. Cccb Lab estimated that this digital phase of production contributes 9.6% of a novel’s environmental impact.

Taking all the above into consideration, the Cleantech group (US) estimated that making one Kindle has the same impact as making 23 paperbacks, while the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden estimated it required 33 books. So, if we take an average and say a typical e-reader has a similar environmental impact to 28 paperbacks and has a 3-year life span, it would seem that people who consume less than 10 paperbacks a year could have less impact on the environment by purchasing new paperbacks than by using an e-reader!

Of-course, that ignores the fact that you may be using an i-pad for reading as well as other things, but the point the above figures make is that the difference is not as clear cut as might first be assumed.

Secondhand books & Libraries

Maybe one way in which readers can help is to use libraries or to buy from secondhand retailers. This is not always the “nicest” solution, of-course: a friend or family member is unlikely to be overjoyed to receive a tatty paperback as a present. And consider the local library: it works brilliantly for browsing books and borrowing from the ones on their shelves at that moment, but it’s less reliable when you’re after one particular book, especially if it didn’t hit the bestsellers’ list.

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The secondhand market is not the perfect solution because it obviously needs to be continually “fed” with a fresh supply of books, so it cannot remove the need for publishers to manufacture books in the first place. There is also the question of author’s revenue to consider. Professional authors rely on income from royalties; the fewer new books that are sold, the less income they receive, driving more authors to the breadline. The recently formed AuthorSHARE initiative helps slightly here – secondhand retailers WorldofBooks and BookBarn International contribute to a fund that gives royalties to authors on the sale of secondhand books.  A similar scheme runs for library borrowing to help compensate for the resulting reduction in fresh purchases. Like many other authors, I benefit from Public Lending Rights (PLR), which distributes payments to authors to recompense them for their books being borrowed from libraries; to some authors, PLR provides a significant percentage of their annual income.

How Print-on-Demand (POD) Helps the Environment

Increasingly, publishers are turning to Print-on-Demand (POD). It’s a favourite of small publishers because it removes the need for high upfront costs, but comes at higher financial cost. The environmental benefit is that no books are remaindered and therefore the CO2emissions from transporting unwanted books is eliminated, and there is no energy requirement to pulp and recycle them, and no need to use landfill. Some larger publishers are now adopting a hybrid approach by producing smaller conventional print runs and supplementing the volume with POD.

Publisher’s Targets for Net Zero Environmental Impact

Many publishers have signed-up to the Publishing Declares initiative, which aims to help publishers achieve net-zero by 2040. It will be interesting in the coming years to see what methods they adopt in their pursuit of this target.


Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

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