Where’s the impact of a book?

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Last time, we had a look at the impact of a cotton t-shirt. We found that cotton production relied on the use of dangerous pesticides, that dye use polluted waterways, and that sweatshop labour still pervades the clothing industry.

This week, we’ll have a look at the impact of a paperback book. We produce an incredible amount of books on a annual basis – figures for the US from 2006 put it at a cool 4.15 billion, a fairly significant amount of which (potentially around 40%) were never sold. And while, as we’ll see, the processes involved in producing books take a considerable carbon toll, reading is a pretty carbon-unintensive recreational activity (unlike, say, international travel or water skiing).

We could even push the boat out further and say that is has a beneficial effect on our relationship with the environment, as books have played a large part in raising awareness about climate change and environmental damage. As a non-instamatic activity and one that engages our imaginations, extending our ability to be empathetic, they can “halt the consumerist lifestyle in its tracks,” according to Mike Berners-Lee.

The average book has a fairly long life. First, there’s the painstaking process of composition, then editing and design. Trees are felled, debarked, pulped and shipped to a printer, where the final product is brought to life. Then it’s back to the publisher, eventually to be distributed to retail outlets across the country. In this quick assessment, we’ve chosen to focus on forestry, paper production and ink production.

First, let’s have a look at where the paper comes from. Most books are produced using virgin, rather than recycled, fibre. It’s this emphasis on forestry which contributes to the book industry’s significant carbon footprint – forestry is responsible for 62.7% of the US’s 12.4 million metric ton carbon footprint.

Deforestation is an extremely environmentally detrimental activity. The world’s forests store a significant amount of carbon, as does the soil they live in; in cutting them down, we lose a great deal of this carbon back into the atmosphere and reduce the amount of trees turning carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis.

Disturbingly, fibre is still sourced from endangered forests all over the world. The UK’s paper primarily comes from Scandinavia, where, as Friends of the Earth report, “the majority of the natural boreal forest has been converted into an intensively managed secondary forest of plantations, where the inhabitants of a true and complex eco-system struggle to survive.” Only 5% of the old-growth forest remains, and yet it’s still being logged.

The loss of forests also has a devastating effect on indigenous and local communities whose cultural identity is closely interwoven with the forest environment.

More publishing companies are moving towards using recycled fibre, though their efforts are in part hampered by the higher price of recycled paper. Although it’s easy to recycle, around half of the amount of paper we annually consume ends up in landfill, a symptom of unfavourable logistics: most most paper production plants are in rural areas near forests, while most paper is discarded in highly urban areas.

The process which transforms trees into pages is also environmentally detrimental. An extremely energy intensive process, paper production also uses a large amount of water as well as toxic chemicals.

Particular concerns have been raised about the use of chlorine to bleach paper to make it that brilliant white – it’s been shown to cause respiratory diseases, cancer, damage reproductive systems and affect development. Organchlorides, produced as byproducts, are also hazardous.

The toxicity of the industry is highlighted in these figures from the US: paper and pulp manufacturers are the fourth largest industrial emitters of greenhouse gases, releasing 212 million tons of hazardous substances into the air and water on an annual basis.

All of the above would be largely pointless without the somewhat magical properties of inks. Comprised of varnish, solvent, colourant and additives, ink production also utlises dangerous materials.

While the use of heavy metals in the printing industry has decreased significantly, many are still use. Titanium oxide and iron are used as pigments; cobalt is used as a drier; aluminium and brass are used for metallic inks. Heavy metals can leech into groundwater and can be inhaled by workers, leading to neurological damage, birth defects, and reduced fertility.

What else could we add to write the story? Leave us your comments below!

What are the impacts of the things we buy? Where is the energy used? What are the impacts on other people and the environment?

Where’s the Impact? is an innovative teaching resource exploring the ecological footprint of products. There are literally thousands of processes involved in the production of any given product – to raise awareness about the impacts of production, pupils use a set of cards to tell the story of a product from beginning to end.

A special offer on the game is available until the 31st of March. £21 for 1-4 copies, £19 for over 5, £17 for over 10 and £15 for over 20. Buy Where’s the Impact from the CAT Eco Store 01654 705 959 or email education@cat.org.uk.