The Uncomfortable Truth About How Reading Physical Books May Actually Hurt the Environment
I’ve always loved reading physical books. The feel of the pages, the smell of the paper, it just can’t be replicated on a screen. But as much as I enjoy reading print books, I’ve recently learned that my reading habits may be harming the environment. After doing some research, I was surprised and saddened to uncover some inconvenient truths about the environmental impact of print books.
The Materials Used to Make Books Have a Significant Carbon Footprint
Physical books are made from paper, which mainly comes from trees. The paper industry contributes to deforestation, which reduces forests’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide. The materials and industrial processes used to make paper also produce greenhouse gas emissions:
- Trees need to be harvested to make paper. Cutting down trees contributes to deforestation and reduces natural carbon sinks.
- Pulp has to be produced to make paper. The pulping process requires large amounts of energy and chemicals.
- Inks and other chemicals are used to transform pulp into printed sheets. The production of these materials generates emissions.
- Books must be printed and transported, which uses fossil fuels.
The entire supply chain to produce a book has a substantial carbon footprint. Experts estimate the carbon emissions from making a single book can equal up to 1.5 pounds of CO2. That may not seem like much, but it adds up quickly when millions of books are printed.
Distribution of Print Books Involves Major Transportation Emissions
Once printed, books must be shipped long distances to reach readers around the world. Print books are heavy and bulky, making them highly inefficient to transport compared to digital files.
The main sources of transportation emissions include:
- Shipping books overseas via cargo ships and planes. International freight transport accounts for around 90% of book shipping emissions.
- Trucking books domestically with heavy vehicles. Books are shipped between printers, distribution centers, and retail stores.
- Customer trips to purchase books require personal vehicle emissions.
Experts estimate the carbon footprint of distributing a typical print book from the printing press to the reader is over 4 pounds of CO2e (CO2 equivalent). That’s nearly 3x the emissions from printing it!
The Short Lifespan of Books Leads to More Waste
Print books often have surprisingly short useful lifespans. Hardcovers may last for decades if well cared for, but most mass market paperbacks are read once or twice and then discarded, resold, or recycled.
Reasons print books get discarded so quickly include:
- Planned obsolescence – Many books are printed on low-quality, acid paper that yellows and becomes brittle over time.
- Trend sensitivity – Genres like self-help and technology books become outdated rapidly.
- Limited shelf life – Most paperbacks are not viewed as worth keeping indefinitely.
Experts believe the average lifespan of a typical print book from publishing to disposal is only around 2 years. All of the resources that went into producing and shipping that book are wasted when it’s quickly thrown away.
Shifting to Digital Books Could Significantly Reduce Emissions
The unavoidable conclusion seems to be that purchasing and reading print books has a surprising environmental toll. But the good news is that shifting to reading on digital devices like e-readers provides an opportunity for reducing emissions.
Some key advantages of digital books:
- No physical materials – E-books avoid paper, printing, and transport emissions.
- Efficient distribution – Digital files weigh nothing and require minimal energy to deliver.
- Reusable devices – E-readers have long lifetimes and display thousands of books.
If 25-50% of print book readers switched to digital, experts estimate annual carbon emissions could be reduced by 5-9 million tons – equivalent to taking 1-2 million cars off the road! That’s a big potential environmental payoff.
Weighing the Trade-Offs of Print Books vs Digital
While giving up print books reduces your carbon footprint, there are cultural drawbacks to losing the printed word. It seems we need to thoughtfully balance the environmental benefits of digital reading with the social value and enjoyment of physical books.
Some ways to be a greener reader while still enjoying print books:
- Purchase books printed on recycled paper. This reduces the material impacts.
- Borrow books from libraries instead of buying personal copies. This reduces production emissions.
- Give away or resell books when finished instead of tossing them. This extends the book’s lifespan.
- Switch to e-books for fast-changing genres like news and technology. This avoids wasted out-of-date books.
- Use an e-reader for vacations and travel. This decreases transportation emissions.
With some mindful adjustments, we can work to minimize the environmental footprint of reading, while still embracing the wonder of books. Our reading habits affect the planet, but a few changes can go a long way.