The publishing industry first became possible when Johannes Gutenberg created his printing press in Germany during 1440. The ability to disseminate widespread information quickly changed everything and the world has never been the same. As the publishing industry grew, so did its carbon footprint. In the United States alone, the publishing industry uses about 32 million trees annually to make books. On top of that, producing books emits over 40 million metric tons of C02 each year.
Around the mid 2000s, the publishing industry took a hard look at the environmental impact it was creating. Book publishing has been designated as the third largest industrial greenhouse emitter when it comes to pulp and paper. This is problematic when it comes to waste management because 40 percent of solid waste in landfills is in fact paper. Many publishing houses assessed their environmental impact and decided to turn a new leaf.
Publishers today are trying to tackle this issue and hundreds have already developed environmental policies to make publishing a more sustainable industry. Many in the industry have also signed the Book Industry Treatise on Environmentally Responsible Publishing. The good news is that there are ways to make books that don't require traditionally wasteful methods.
For example, 4.9 million trees would be spared if the industry used about 30 percent post consumer waste. Companies can also prevent 2,108 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions if they replace one ton of virgin fiber with post consumer recycled fiber. These small pivots might not be a complete solution, but they’re an important start.
Major publishing houses have taken steps to go green and are setting the standard for what can be done. For example, Hachette Book Group, one of the biggest publishers in the industry, created a comprehensive environmental policy in 2009 to set out goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions and find responsible paper sources. By 2013, the company had already moved the needle and the rate of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper used by the company had gone up to 84 percent and its use of recycled fiber rose to 10 percent.
Another well-known publishing house, Scholastic, faced a tougher uphill battle. As a children’s book publisher, huge quantities of ink are needed to make their brightly illustrated books. The company does, however, continue to target a minimum use of 60 percent FSC certified paper. Penguin Random House, the country’s largest publisher, is trying to “to ensure service and support are eco-managed properly and appropriately” according to spokesman Stuart Applebaum.
Macmillan, another publishing powerhouse, has made consistent strides with its green initiatives. In 2009, CEO John Sargent decided to set a comprehensive environmental plan for the company. Consequently, Macmillan has able to reduce their CO2 intensity per ton of purchased paper by 44 percent since 2009. By choosing to use energy efficient mills and building a dedicated team to tackle the ongoing efforts, this publishing group has become an example for others.
While printed books require paper and create C02 emissions, e-books are an obvious alternative to printed books, and are becoming more accessible and affordable by the year. Of course, readers still need to consume energy to use the devices. It's also worth noting that, as of current production, the devices themselves still create pollution when they are being made. While there are upsides to using e-readers, they don't necessarily offer a perfect environmental solution.
Since printed books aren't going away for the time being, publishers can continue make more environmentally friendly choices. Apart from the efforts to attain responsibly sourced paper, companies can also use more eco friendly inks. Vegetable based inks for example, can help bring down toxic emissions. While the paper within the book is important, publishers can also choose eco friendly cover materials and endpapers with responsible companies like Ecological Fibers.
Another initiative might be to plant a tree for every hundred books sold. Organizations such as the Arbor Day Foundation work with companies to match goals and plants trees on their behalf. Publishing is a powerhouse industry, and every step forward is definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to taking care of the planet.