Friday, May 16, 2014

The Inconvenient Truth about Print

Print books, once threatened by e-publishing, have bounced back with stronger sales and a dedicated consumerate. Now, can print survive its negative impact on the environment?  ♦ 

Back in 2008, the long reign of the physical book looked to be coming to an end. E-book sales initially had triple-digit growth rates, which coincided with several high-profile brick-and-mortar bookstore chains closing their doors. The e-reader, it seemed, had the book beat in all ways practical—it was certainly cheaper and more accessible—and as a result, print books would soon be a relic of the past.
       Flash forward to today, and we see that things have stabilized; what we’re left with is a thriving hybrid market.
       In an article for Publishers Weekly, author Jim Milliot writes that “e-books have become another format, much like audio books and paperbacks. A more stable and rational hybrid market is one publishers could live with, and it is certainly one that would keep brick-and-mortar stores a viable channel for the industry.”
       What this hybrid market means is more choices; people can buy a book how they want it. This is illustrated by the fact that some genres (such as mystery and romance) sell better as e-books, while others do better as print. Milliot paraphrases Peter Hildick-Smith, CEO of the Codex Group, in the same article: “Tablet users [as opposed to users of “dedicated e-readers”] buy about one-third of their titles in e-book format and two-thirds in print; consumers who own both tablets and dedicated e-readers tend to split their book purchases evenly between print and digital.”
       What this comes down to is this: both e-readers and print have found their niches, and an equilibrium that, at the moment, accommodates both. But, fans of print, don’t smile yet. Further in the future is something that makes the termination of print books as we know them almost inevitable. It is even big enough to affect die-hard book buyers . . . the ones that have multiple copies of the same book and look for craftsmanship of the product even outside of the text.
       The inevitable, hard truth about print books is that 1) they are made from a resource that, for all intents and purposes, is finite, and 2) they are made from a process, paper milling, that is, in terms of its environmental impact, both dirty and unsustainable.
       According to the Green Press Initiative, paper production for the book sector alone costs 30 million trees just in the United States annually. The U.S. paper industry, in its entirety, accounts for 10% of all U.S. greenhouse emissions and over 40 million metric tons of CO2 is created just in the production of books and newspaper, which, GPI states, is “equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of 7.3 million cars.” There are also many other nasty bi-products from paper milling such as total reduced sulfur compounds (TRS) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like methanol gas.
       Look even further, and the negative effects of paper milling start to pile up. This list includes the desolation of massive habitats—for animals and humans alike—nutrient erosion, and worsening of climate change.
       The obvious solution to all of this print byproduct is e-readers . . . or so you would think. But these machines have pollution byproducts of their own, though not on the same scale; an article published by the Washington Post asserts that, as of now, you must read 100 e-books for the environmental cost to break even. Though Casey Harrell, a Greenpeace information technology analyst, states in the same article that “About 40% of the energy costs is embedded in the supply chain," to which Daniel Goleman, an environmental journalist, adds, “The adverse health impacts from making one e-reader are estimated to be 70 times greater than those from making a single book.”
     While this is true, e-readers are designed to carry more than 70 books . . . and as technology becomes more integrated, who’s to say how much ecological damage can be saved from the integration of phone, tablet, e-reader, and computer into one device?
       Regardless, print's ecological footprint poses a massive threat to its continuation. As the world population grows, and more forested land is converted into residential areas, the demand for wood pulp will rise and supplies will diminish, making paper milling an increasingly expensive process. Running out of trees is a very real possibility; after all, a far less industrialized people than we cut down nearly one-forth of the forested land in American before 1900, including nearly 95% of Michigan’s virgin forests, according to
       While today it is ecologically sounder to buy a book than an e-reader, it won’t be that way forever. Unfortunately for print lovers, books are created from a resource and a process that simply aren't sustainable. Losing print in favor of a more eco-friendly product might be not only desirable but, sadly, inevitable. 

Photo credit: Doug Bradley / Flickr ♦ 
  • About the Author
    J.K. Lyons is a senior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he studies History and Creative Writing. Two of his short stories, "Dreams and Smoke" and "Getting Lucky," have been featured in Black Market Lit, an online literary magazine. Visit him online here.

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