Are books harmful to the environment?
Books are an integral part of human civilization. Probably you cannot find a home without any books. From our study material to gifting someone, books are pretty much everywhere. Since the birth of humankind, we have tried to preserve our experiences and moments of life. Earlier, humans used to draw on the walls or ceilings of the caves.
After the progress of our civilization, we learned to use tree bark and clothes to note down our feelings, beliefs, and social practices, and even our ancestors started to write stories, poems, and scholarly manuscripts. Those were the first books of their kind
Thousands of years passed, and we finally came to the fifteenth century when French goldsmith Gutenberg first invented the printing press. After a few hundred years from then, today, books are still the symbol of knowledge!
But we have walked a long way since then, and today’s environment has changed substantially with our advancement. For a better future, we need to care for our environment today more than anything else.
Due to that, a relevant question comes to our mind: whether books are harmful to your environment or not! We know that today almost 30% of people read books every day, and 60% read at least once a week. As per recent surveys, in the US, 73% of the population reads at least one book annually. That’s a huge number, isn’t it? We can provide a pie chart showing the percentage of various forms of book reads in America:
This chart is prepared from classified data collected by various surveys (including the PEW Research Centre survey).
Almost two-thirds of the world’s population read books. Either they read traditional printed books or ebooks. Readers and book lovers across the globe enjoy ebook reading. Still, paper books have the largest number of followers!
So, if you want to protect our environment, you must have an idea if books are harming it. This blog intends to provide you with real data on the impact of books on the environment. Let’s get started.
Why do we use paper for books?
As I said earlier, we have seen the use of clothes, clays, tree bark, and other materials in the making of handwritten books or manuscripts. You can consider those ancient antique books. Throughout history, we can notice an evolution of the material of books. Around 2400 BC, Egyptians used papyrus- a paper-like sheet made of plants for writing.
Romans and Greeks also inherited that practice. In the 5th century BC, people used specially harvested skins to write on. A thin material called parchment, suitable for writing, was developed from calfskin, sheep, or goatskin. Reportedly, the paper was first produced in China. Around 105 AD, a Chinese Cai Lun first created paper pulp with mulberries, bark, hemp, old rags, and used fishnets.
Since that day, papers have gone through a lot of evolution. Today the materials industrially used to make papers are different from that time. But we still use paper for making books because of its lightweight, easy availability, and low cost.
We can adjust a lot of pages within a cover and make a compact, easy-to-use book, and it is not easy to do with any other materials. The tensile strength of paper is just perfect for making books that will last for many years without damage.
Are books harmful to the environment?
The answer to this question is not quite simple. We can’t answer in one or two words. If we look at the figures of how many trees are being cut every year to make paper, anyone will conclude that books are harmful to our environment.
Actually, the manufacturing process is. Books are the source of knowledge and wisdom, and they are life changers. But the way they are manufactured from natural resources makes us worried about our environment.
The environment is already much damaged, and we are trying hard to recover it. Making one book requires 2 kWh of fossil fuels and produces about 7.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide. But even that is not an overwhelming concern. Manufacturing books require a tremendous amount of water and trees. Over 100 million trees are cut every year only in the US to produce books. Newspaper and book publishing collectively consume nearly 153 billion gallons of water annually. Clearly, books leave a strong fatal impact on our environment. They pose some threat to the ecological balance.
Material of the paper books
We all know books are made of paper, and there are different kinds of paper used for book publishing. Book covers are also made of paper but with heavier paper stocks, and they weigh more than the inside pages. Hardcover books have cardboard-type papers used as the cover, whereas paperbacks have slightly thick papers as covers.
We use coated papers for offset printing. But uncoated papers have a natural look. Whatever the paper is, it is produced by consuming the trees and water from nature. We also need ink, thread, glue, and book cloth to print and bind a book. All these materials are a basic need.
Industrial production of all these materials is not easy on the environment, and our environment is exposed to pollution and degradation because of these industrial processes of making raw materials. Millions of trees are cut annually to fulfill the demand for paper worldwide.
Environmental impact of extracting the material
Consumption of natural resources:
We produce papers consuming the elements of nature. Every day around 80,000 to 160,000 trees are cut down across the world. Most of it is used to make paper. Many tree farms have been built over the years to satisfy this huge demand for trees in the paper industry.
Today in many paper-making factories, trees come from tree farms. But only the trees produced on the farms are insufficient in the face of massive demand. Loggers cut down forests for paper too. This results in global forest loss per year.
Deforestation also leads animals and birds to lose their homes. Let alone deforestation; paper production creates air pollution and tremendous waste materials. Hence, the overall process of producing paper industrially is undoubtedly harmful to the environment.
Paper has versatile uses. Apart from book publishing or writing, we use paper in different works differently. Well, here is a graph showing paper consumption across the world.
Book publishing contributes approximately 26% of the global paper consumption. Therefore, you can easily conclude that for book publishing alone, tons of trees are required, and it takes a huge amount of natural resources to print books worldwide.
Paper for book publishing is produced from recycled paper also, yet we need wood pulp to mix with it to make high-quality paper pulp.
Here is the data on the use of different materials in paper making.
From one tree, we can make about 8000 sheets of copy-type paper. From this stat, you can calculate that from one tree, we get 20 copies of an 800-page book. Using this formula, we see that 500 sheets of paper are 5% of a tree.
In the last 50 years, the usage of paper has increased up to 400%!! So, on average, 4 billion trees are cut yearly to make papers!
When a full-grown tree produces almost 260 pounds of oxygen each year, and two such trees can provide enough oxygen for a family of four, we must seriously consider the potential harm to our environment due to paper books!
Books take much space to store:
We need a spacious room or house to arrange our books properly. It is a huge thing to consider. If you’re a bookworm living in a small place, you won’t be able to accommodate all your books fittingly.
Transportation and Portability:
You can purchase a book from any bookstore or buy it online. Whatever the measure of buying books is, it requires fossil fuel burn. If you buy a book online, that book requires transport by air or land, or even if you drive your car to the bookstore to buy books, it requires the burning of fossil fuels.
Also, a good amount of books are returned to the publisher from the bookstores, resulting in additional energy waste.
Printing one book may leave a carbon footprint from 1 kg to 3 kgs depending upon the paper and ink used. The estimated carbon footprint of a paperback book is nearly 2.7kg. The total carbon footprint of the publishing industry is about 40 million metric tons. With this number, book publishing has become the third-largest industrial greenhouse emitter!
Where do books go after usage? Recycled or wasted?
Cut down forests contribute to climate change. Paper factories pollute the air and water and harm the soil as well. Because when you throw paper in the waste, it takes about 6 to 9 years to decompose. That’s why recycling is important.
Recycling paper saves a lot of trees and indeed slows down climate change. When the forest is saved, the endangered animals and birds don’t lose their natural home.
Did you know that it takes 24 trees to make one ton of paper? One ton of paper is equivalent to 200,000 sheets! We use a piece of paper once or twice, but it can be recycled five to seven times!
Recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees. And if it is recycled seven times, it saves 117 trees!
Some of the books are made with non-recyclable papers, too, but most of the reputed publishers have shifted to recyclable paper.
Harmful effects of the ink used in book printing
Consumption of trees and water is not the only environmental impact of paper mills! The ink used in book printing leaves harmful effects on our environment too. Printing industry or ink production results in the emission of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and air pollutants as well.
Ink production also leaves hazardous byproducts in the form of non-recyclable liquid waste. These chemicals produced in ink production contribute to photochemical smoke and ground-level ozone emission in the atmosphere.
The VOCs and other heavy metals in the industrial residue can harm the soil and pollute water during landfills. The production of this ink used in paper books is also malicious to our health as it contains at least one carbon and a hydrogen atom.
You can find eco-friendly inks in the market too, but it contains toxic chemicals too, though in a small amount.
Do we have any other way of producing books?
Before the invention of papers, people used thinned skins, parchment, clay tables, tree bark, or papyrus to make handwritten books or manuscripts. Cotton was also used to produce high-quality papers. Today apart from the traditional paper books, books are primarily found as digital files.
Ebooks are becoming popular day by day. Just in 2 years from 2019, 159.5 million people choose to read ebooks, making the number of e-readers 1.11 billion across the globe. Ebooks also make up 20-30% of the annual gross book sales. Although 65% of the readers prefer paper books, ebooks are getting really famous.
If we look for an alternative to paper books, then ebooks can be our pathfinder. But the production of ebooks is hard on the environment too. Sixty-five gallons of carbon dioxide is produced, and almost 100 kWh of fossil fuel is required to make one eBook.
Despite this fact, ebooks provide some convenience to their readers. Ebooks are cheap. They are easy to access, and many free online versions are there, making ebooks a thinkable choice.
Eco-friendly materials for paper books:
We don’t have a planet B. Saving earth is the only way of saving human civilization. We have to use the limited natural resources sensibly and aim for sustainability. In manufacturing books, we can show a sustainable approach by using eco-friendly paper. Eco-friendly paper is traditional paper with a zero carbon footprint and reduced environmental impact, and you can say it is an earth-friendly version of mill-made traditional paper.
Upcycled paper and recycled paper are the most sustainable, eco-friendly papers among various other types.
But you maybe know that recycled paper is not tree-free! Also, paper recycling consumes more energy than plastic recycling. Before recycling paper, we have to remove the ink from it, which requires chemical use. These chemicals, ink, and small fibers are responsible for water and land pollution. But recycling is necessary as it helps to reduce the demand for fresh trees.
Therefore we need some alternative approaches in paper making to protect our environment.
Agricultural waste that remains after crop harvesting and the waste from textile industries can be used as raw materials in eco-friendly paper making. Various stuff is used as raw materials in this process of paper making, such as banana fiber, cotton rags, linen rags, coffee husk, corn husk, elephant poo, vetiver grass, tea waste, flax fiber, and many others. These fibers naturally produce tree-free high-quality papers.
Impact of books on human life
Since our birth, we have been somehow attached to books through our bedtime stories, studies, and leisure. Books give us innate wisdom that nothing else can. We read books to gather knowledge about different things. We don’t read books only to pass exams but for immense pleasure. A good book helps us to release stress and gives us pure happiness.
Reading books can give you an insight into how people live and how life evolves. Books broaden our minds and give us knowledge about social, economic, political, art, and scientific aspects. The one who said books are our biggest friend was absolutely right. If you grow a habit of reading books, you’ll never feel alone.
With emerging technology, we have ebooks too. Ebooks are comparatively easy on the environment. Although paper books have some negative points to discuss, if you look at the larger picture, paper books are an inevitable part of human life.
There’s a legacy of giving your favorite books that influenced you as a kid to your children. So, do books influence us? The answer is always yes! The impact of books on our lives is much deeper than their harmful effects on our environment.
If we wish to save our environment, we can take some necessary steps like arranging more tree plantation campaigns, using eco-friendly materials for making books, and recycling almost 100% old books.
Paper books have some negative effects on the environment surely, but at the same time, books fill our lives with positivity. Books and all forms of paper products are increasingly harming our environment. We need to take careful measures to minimize the negative effects of paper production.
Manufacturing books consume a lot from nature but, in return, gives us a lot more too. We must be careful to control the effects of paper books on our environment. We must be conscious of planting more trees and taking care of them. Our government should monitor the paper mills to see if they produce paper legally and plant enough trees.
We need to create awareness among people not to waste paper. A huge quantity of paper is wasted every year or burnt. If we stop wasting paper, it’ll really result in tree savings. Also, we need to recycle unused, old, or abandoned papers instead of throwing or burning them. Collectively we can establish a healthy balance between the environment and our favorite books.
Book publishing requires tons of paper each year. Only 626000 million tons of papers are used in publishing books in the US, and over 32 million trees are cut down to fulfill this requirement. Clearly, books eventually negatively impact our environment, and the production of books is harmful to our air, water, and nature in certain ways.