How environmentally sustainable is storytelling?

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From GoodEreader:

When the world got shut down, many of us found refuge by escaping into stories. Whether reading an intriguing historical biography, an engrossing thriller, or a magical fantasy; for many of us curling up with a book has been a more popular past time. As such, as the world opens back up, it’s an interesting time to look at how our reading habits have changed, and whether or not they have an impact on the environment.

E-readers and digital content has boomed significantly over the last decade. Now a day, it’s not uncommon to hear about book club members debating between whether to read a print book or e-book; as there are pros and cons for each. Some people in my book club swear by the experience of the mighty e-reader, enjoying its compact nature, ability to hold multiple books, the many cool features, as well as the ability to read “pretty much anywhere.” (Except while driving! Judy, we’ve talked about this before).

It seems I’m a bit of a dinosaur, and although I like to read manga via a digital platform, I’m still quite in love with print books.

. . . .

I prefer the experience of holding a glossy print book, and being able to flip through the pages, underline favorite passages, and yes, if I choose, I may even dog ear pages. (shh!) Personally, I often use my book as a coaster for my coffee, which becomes rather ridiculous and redundant when I make a fresh cup of coffee and then sit down to read… spending longer than I’d like to admit wondering to myself, “Now… where did I set that book down?”

For my book club, debating what format we were going to use to read our next book didn’t really matter as we simply accommodated everyone, choosing novels which come in both print and digital formats. However, just recently a book club member brought up another reason to consider e-readers which created quite a stir and definitely caught my attention: the negative environmental impact of print books.

Although this book member was rather nice about accusing me of killing the planet one page at a time- she offered me cookies while launching into my moral shortcomings as a print book reader- I must admit I was surprised to hear that the latest climate change culprit was books, and wanted to do a deep dive into the facts around this.

. . . .

According to a recent piece by Nicole Smythe, in Forbes (September 2022) “When creating a print book, one tree can produce around 8,333 pages of paper; therefore, with an average book containing 400 pages, one tree, on average, can produce around 20 books. However, let’s put this into perspective – with the United States seeing an 8.5% increase in print sales, resulting in 825.7 million additional copies being sold, that’s almost 41.2 million trees needed for material purposes alone. This level of deforestation can generate tremendous amounts of wastewater and a sizeable carbon footprint.”

Ms. Smythe, as well as a very passionate book club member of mine, ascertains that readers need to face the fact that change is upon us, and clinging to our beloved paperbacks may be causing serious harm on our environment.

. . . .

“At the end of a book’s life, unless followed through with a proper recycling process, most often or not, it will end up in a landfill. The process of print book decomposition is one of the most ecologically unfriendly aspects in its full product lifecycle, as it will produce twice the climate change emissions as its manufacturing process.” (Forbes, 2022)

. . . .

In at 2020 piece published in Anthropocene looking at the the environmental footprint of paper vs. electronic books, writer Pierre-Olivier Roy states, “E-readers don’t require trees, ink, or glue—nor do they take up as much space and weight as a traditional book. An e-reader represents not just one book but an entire bookshelf, so having more books on the e-reader reduces the environmental burden per book. On the other hand, e-readers consist of electronic components (such as the screen, lithium-ion battery, and CPU)—all of which require extraction and transformation of different resources (copper, silicon, and rare earth elements, among others). They use electricity to recharge, and the data centers and servers that host electronic books before they’re downloaded also consume resources and energy. What’s more, an e-reader has a shorter lifetime (around three years) than a paper book. And even though recycling electronic products continues to become easier, the practice is still not widespread and is much more problematic than recycling paper books.”

Link to the rest at GoodEreader

PG reads the large majority of the content he consumes via various screens. However, he is a strong proponent of live and let live in any disputes regarding ebooks v. paper books (as well as a great many other things.)

12 thoughts on “How environmentally sustainable is storytelling?”

  1. Meanwhile, in an effort to reduce European burning of fossil fuel and meet some climate goal, southern yellow pine is being harvested in the US, turned into pellets, and shipped to Europe. It’s considered a renewable resource energy. I suppose burning books would fall into the same category.

  2. While, like PG, I read mostly on a variety of screens these days, paper books have one major advantage. They still work when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

    Living in Arizona, of course, I have a solar charger (they’re less than $50 most places). It is an extremely rare event that there are more than three days without good sunshine.

    • People who harp on sustainability, carbon footprint, and “envirpnmental friendliness” typically know beans about supply chains and manufacturing processes.
      “Paper comes from trees. Treees are renewable so paper is environmrntally friendly.”
      Book paper is nothing of the sort. Cutting trees, transporting them, pulping them, bleaching the pulp… It all requires tons of diesel, tons of water, tons of bleach. Then there’s the inks. The plastic coating on the covers, the shrink wrap so prevalent today.

      Ebook readers are hardly clean themselves but it is a one time load that lasys 5-10 years. And minimal energy to move and store the ebooks. The OP should look at the math for just a few dozen books.

      Solar? Try doing an audit on what it takes to convert sand (but not any sand) to cell-grade silicon, the energy to assemble the cells into panels, to ship them halfway acrows the ocean. Batteries, wi mills, all the same.

      None of the so-called green tech produces less carbon and less pollution during manufacture and transportstion than they save during their limited usable lifetimes. All they do is shift emissions and especially pollution elsewhere; to China, Russia, India, Bolivia, Congo, Algeria, Morroco, Africa in general. Know which country has among the biggest carbon emissions today? Germany. Because tbey “supplement” solar at night and on cloudy days, with *lignite*. The dirtiest form of coal on earth. They brag of their massive investment in solar in a country with only 169 sunny days a year. Never mind thr mightd. Or their massive chemical industries. None of which can feed off electricity.

      It’s all smoke and mirrors. And IdiotPoliticians™. Above all, stupid idiologues who are making things worse long term so they can posture in the short term.

      • One of my favorite conversations with a local twenty-year-old:

        Me: It takes just as much energy to move a 4,000 pound electric car one mile as it does to move a 4,000 pound gas car.

        Her: No it doesn’t. With the electric car you just plug it in.

  3. I will never understand why we can’t just use nuclear energy. It’s good enough for the sun, it should be good enough for us

    • Standard operating practice:
      Less chance to steal with nuclear, less chance to send the money to friends of the party.

      Exhibit one of zillions: SOLYNDRA.
      Exhibit two: ARES I, ARES V under CONSTELLATION.
      (The ARES rockets would have put us back on the moon by 2018 using advanced solid boosters. Cheap, using tech from one small republican state. Cancelled to later be replace by an expensive multistate project using the best twentieth century tech. Mostly west coast companies.)

      Who gets the money matters.

      In another universe, we’d be more like, ahem, France.
      France has its issues but they get 72% of their energy from nuclear. Safely and affordable. The rest is natural gas from Algeria. They are now evolving to small modular reactors: cheaper, safer, less waste. The UK is working on similar reactors, ditto the US. But the only US design certified so far is by a Bill Gates company.

      As things are going, we’ll get privately funded Fusion before the IdiotPoliticians™ lift a finger on any meaningful energy reform. Mind you, the only significant actual carbon reduction on Earth is the US cutting 50% by going from coal to natural gas. But that’s a fuction of fracking making NG dirt cheap. In some places it’s practically a waste product from oil extraction. Saddest thing is we burn chemicals that are worth far more for other uses.

      BTW, the early environmental and anti-nuclear movements started as KGB misinformation. It’s evolve since but they’re still saddled with myths and misinformation.

      • The North Slope of Alaska has been producing natural gas since the fields opened in the Seventies. Every barrel that comes up is composed of oil, gas, and water. All of the gas has been pumped back underground. It’s just sitting there as one proposal after another for getting it to market comes and goes.

        • Japan will now happily pay for the pipelines and LNG facility.
          Bad times are coming and staying on the right side of NorthAm will make them less bad.

          • For a long time it was illegal to sell North Slope oil to the Japanese. It had to go to a US refinery. Not sure what the current situation is. However, gas from the Kenai Peninsula in South Alaska is going to Japan.

            • Back in 2015, when the US became energy independent (until Biden) Congress in a rare moment of bipartisan sanity, gave the president the power to allow/disallow export of oil at will. Obama allowed it. It stayed thst way until Biden made it impossible by restricting production just in time for the war, so Opec+ could once again control oil prices. Instead he emptied most of the strategic reserve to cover up his blunder.

              He’d better not show his face in Alberta.

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