How environmentally friendly are books?

The search engine of a large online bookseller finds 695 books matching the search term “Greta Thunberg”. Reading about her climate activism is wonderful, but does she approve, we wonder? After all, the printing of all those pages is itself a source of CO2 emissions. We mark the Leipzig Book Fair by asking which factors influence the ecological footprint of books and e-book readers. The answer will help readers to decide how climate-friendly they can make their reading. Carl-Otto Gensch of the Oeko-Institut has done a few calculations.

1. Printed books

Carl-Otto Gensch has calculated from various research studies that the production of ten 200-page books from fresh-fibre-based paper causes around eleven kilograms of CO₂ emissions. For books made from recycled paper, it is about two kilograms lower: around nine kilograms of CO2. By way of comparison: a car generates about 2.4 kilograms of CO2 per litre of petrol consumed. Roughly half of the energy needed for book manufacturing is used for the production of the paper, even for books printed on recycled paper. Because the processing of waste paper is laborious and costs energy. Nevertheless, it is obviously better for the environment to use recycled paper than to cut down trees to produce new paper. Many books contain information about which paper they have been printed on. Generally speaking, paperbacks are better for the environment than hardback versions. Manufacturing a hard cover takes twice the resources as the soft cover of a paperback book. The longer and more frequently a book will be used, the more cost-effective it is to print on strong, durable paper, especially in the case of children's books. If a kindergarten purchases a board book and it passes through numerous children's hands over a number of years, then it is better to choose an edition made of stiff board because these are most durable. The order of priority in climate protection is always the same: avoid, reduce, offset. That means it is best of all not to buy any new books, but to pick them up used at the flea market. Or to borrow books from libraries, friends, or public book exchanges, and pass on your own books in the same way. The resource consumption and environmental pollution from book production are then spread across many users.

2. E-book readers

Readers opting to read the ten 200-page books mentioned above on an e-book reader are responsible for about eight kilograms of CO₂ resulting from manufacture and usage. The resource consumption in the production of e-book readers is similar to that of smartphones. However, e-readers tend to be used for longer than smartphones. A critical factor for the ecological footprint of e-readers and other electronic reading devices is to ensure that they have the longest possible usage life, so that they replace as many printed books, magazines and newspapers as possible.

Carl-Otto Gensch is Head of the Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division of the Oeko-Institut, based at its Freiburg location.

Further information:

A comprehensive and – as regards the type of data transfer – up-to-date study has been carried out as part of the Master's thesis “Environmental Implications of Media Consumption embedded in Digital Ecosystems” and in the Trafo 3.0 research project supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research under its FONA – Research for Sustainable Development programme.

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