Environmental Sustainability in Publishing: the eBook vs. Print Debate

Environmental sustainability is fast becoming a key pillar in all industries as we rapidly decline our natural resources, and the publishing industry is no exception. I could give you statistics on the decline in rainfall and increase in extreme weather patterns, but it frames a rather morbid and parched read. However, with some research, I found the debate between paper and digital perfectly outlined the strides the publishing industry is making for environmental sustainability.

Usually, when someone tries to debate the use of an ebook versus a paper book, I would shrug and wave it over to preference. I remember when I first got gifted an ebook, it was basically an iPad that had no games and always ran out of charge when I forgot where I put the cable. On the surface though, you’d think that environmentally speaking, ebooks would obviously be better than print books, right?

As a self-proclaimed crusader for environmental awareness and changing one’s personal habits to reflect your beliefs, I couldn’t believe that my bookshelf adorned with bent pages, cracked spines and special edition duplicates could be environmentally friendly at all. Looking at the statistics, several hit me like a tree trunk to the gut. A 2009 Environmental Protection Agency statement reveals “that while 33.3 percent of books in the waste stream are recovered, approximately 640,000 tons are discarded into the landfill.” I almost choked on my re-usable straw!

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one disturbed by this figure. I turned to the legend of book publishing Penguin to sooth my disgust. Within their main sustainability priorities, the company focuses on sourcing paper sustainably, working towards climate neutrality by 2030 and monitoring supply chain. Compared to Amazon’s main sustainability priorities (arguably the biggest ebook seller), it becomes clear how digital can differ from traditional print. Amazon’s priorities include: net-zero carbon by 2040 with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, sustainable operations (e.g. water, aviation fuel) and improving packaging.

These statistics are important in understanding the sustainability of the publishing industry. Not because they show immediately positive changes in the industry, but because they show  we are capable of working towards a trade that can be both ecologically aware and have better business structures and manufacturing. Furthermore, within the members section of the Book Industry Environmental Council, other leading publishers such as Chronical Books, Hachette Book Group and Scholastic Inc. are among eight others who have pledged to improve their business structures. It appears that the demand for sustainability is encouraging publishers to ensure the longevity of its environmental impacts.

While I could happily end on that note, it is not my purpose to conclude on surface level investigations. Instead, I looked further (honestly not that far) and it became very apparent that the sustainability of digital versus print production was considered fairly clear cut. Within the first search of “ebook vs. print environmental sustainability”, there are several reports of the benefits of ebooks over print books. Studies explain that “the 168kg of CO2 needed to sustain a Kindle during the entirety of its lifecycle is a clear winner when looking at potential savings of nearly 1,074kg if it is used to replace 3 books a month for 4 years.” These seem to be cheery numbers, but I wondered if that took into account our old friend, preference.

While ereaders might be argued as the better of the two when looking at what the device could achieve, a 2017 study showed that 73.6 per cent of people would never use an ereader, while 56.2 per cent would go for a paperback. Furthermore, from my study of ereaders, I noted there were no substantial statistics on consumers who regularly updated their readers to newer models. So, although an ereader technically can be considered the more environmentally friendly when used correctly, it still falls short of our lifelong rituals with printed books. With a price tag of at least AU$120, it’s certainly not the most economical choice.

The ebook versus print book debate is a perfect window into the efforts of the publishing industry and their continued development in leading the way to more sustainable foundations. But whether one is more sustainable than the other depends on the reader. If you are a voracious reader, devouring more books than your bookshelf can hold, maybe look at investing in an ereader. If you prefer a few pages here and there on your daily commute, an old-school paper read is probably the best choice.

I could continue relaying facts on this topic until the year Amazon reaches net-zero carbon, but what I’ve presented seems to paint a rather intimate picture of the publishing industry to me. We are actively trying to be more environmentally aware as an industry and have a promisingly green future, but we still have a very long way to go.  

Sarah Strong is a 23 year old writer who grew up in rural farmland Queensland. She is currently the event coordinator for Grattan Street Press as she graduates from the Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing course.

Image by Hitoshi Suzuki from Unsplash

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