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Debunking the Myth: How Printed Books Are Actually Eco-Friendly

Updated: Dec 14, 2023


I love this picture.

It represents everything wrong with our environmental-friendly and green movement. The ignorance, misinformation, and confusion is ripe with agendas, machinations, and manipulation. 


A plastic cup? Sure, no problem.

A plastic lid? Sure, no problem.

A plastic straw? Hell, no!!!


The danger and damage this does is near immeasurable.



I have been in the print/publishing industry for over 36 years, and have heard a great many things said and many rocks thrown my way.


Let's get something straight:  Reading, or buying, or preferring - or even disposing of - printed books is significantly better for the environment than ebooks are. Period. Full stop. Buy a physical book, plant a tree.


"Printed books are bad for the environment. If you're Green, go ebooks!" If you believe or endorse this mantra, you are plainly wrong and misinformed. The plain fact of the matter is, printing - and in turn, paper mills - put more trees in the ground than they take out. 


So, let's talk about that.


Sometimes I think the printing industry is its own worst enemy, allowing erroneous myths and outright lies to continue unchecked. But the printing industry has, by no means, a unified front.


For clarity's sake, I will be referring to printing and paper industries synonymously. 


Printed books and the paper industry gets a reputation for being bad for the environment. But the modern paper industry is far from destructive. In fact, the paper industry as a whole has made great leaps and bounds towards sustainability, especially as environmental-friendly, renewable resources than nearly any other manufacturing industries.

 

Misinformation #1: Printers and Paper and Books destroys Forests 


Although it’s true that paper requires cellulose pulp and fibers from trees - and trees remain the most popular source of cellulose for paper products - they are not synonymous with clear-cutting loggers.


Companies like Domtar and International Paper rely on the forest for the continued success of their business. Sustainability is crucial to the survival of any paper company. Managed forests are crucial to the business model of each and every paper manufacturer. (The harvested areas for paper companies are known as managed forests. Think of a farmer's fields).


For each tree that is cut down, several are planted or naturally regrown in its place. The paper mills put more trees in the ground than they remove - ensuring that the forest remains intact, and that the natural balance of life in the ecosystem is unaffected.


According to the US Forest Service, over 1.7 million trees are planted by the paper and wood products industry (excluding naturally regenerated seedlings).


There has been no significant decrease in the overall US forested land (nearly 750 million acres) over the past 100 years. The annual growth of forests is actually 36% higher. More trees are planted each year than are removed. That's a growth of 36%, just to be clear. 


Paper products represent under 10% of all logging (and over 60% of wood harvested is used for wood products such as lumber and construction materials, not pulp or paper).


The paper industry encourages larger, healthier forests – the more paper is used, the more trees are planted - paper companies are actually helping the natural world stay pristine and intact. It can be reasonably argued that choosing printed books helps heal the planet.

 

Misinformation #2: Paper Is Not Sustainable


These paper companies don’t just report these statistics out of the kindness of their hearts. Strict certification systems are in place that manage and police them.


Each of Domtar’s mills for the manufacture of pulp and paper are certified by the one of the three major certification organizations.*


Sustainable forest management helps sequester carbon, and fight the effects of climate change and contribute towards the reduction of carbon footprints and global warming.

 


Misinformation #3: Print/Paper/Books Consumes Large Amounts Of Fossil Fuels


Like any industry, making paper does require some fossil fuels. However, the print/paper industry, and by necessity, the forestry industry - is at the top of the list when it comes to on-site electricity generation of any manufacturing sector.

In fact, the electricity generated by some companies exceeds their usage.


Domtar’s 2012 total use of renewable energy at all operations was 76.3% – and that energy usage reduces the carbon emissions and fossil fuels necessary to create high-quality pulp and paper products.


Compared to other manufacturing sectors such as electronics and telecommunications systems, the environmental impact of the wood pulp and paper industry is negligible. In fact, mobile phones, data centres, and telecommunications networks are slated to become the single biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses by 2020, according to consulting firm McKinsey and Company.


....which brings us to the topic of the "environmental-friendly and green" ebooks; or at least its myth.

 

Ebooks


Remember, ebooks require some sort of device - a reader, cell phone, laptop, computer, chargers, etc. - and these devices require batteries. The disposal of (and manufacturing of) electronic devices and their batteries are far from environmental-friendly or green as people want to believe.


The disposal of the batteries is a climate threat. If the battery ends up in a landfill, it will release toxins, including heavy metals that can leak into the soil and groundwater. Let's not kid ourselves, lithium is toxic. It is a poison.


A study from Australia found that 98.3% of lithium batteries end up in landfills. 


The more batteries in landfills, the higher the chances of landfill fires. Landfill fires can burn for years. Between June 2017 - Dec. 2020, one landfill in the Pacific Northwest reported to have had 124 fires due to lithium batteries. And it's becoming more and more common. This same landfill also reported 21 fires in 2018 and that number increased to 47 by 2020.


Only about 5% of the world’s lithium batteries are recycled.


And this doesn't factor in the cost, carbon footprint, and disposal of the electronic devices themselves. 


So, the printed book vs ebook as an environmental argument is no different than the paper straw in the plastic cup & plastic lip senario. 


It's silly a best; a token effort. And it's downright irresponsible, damaging, and a lie at worst.


So, choose your reading material with literate and enlightened wisdom:


Printed books = trees that breathe oxygen into the atmosphere....


or


Ebooks = lithium poisoning of the Earth 

 









*FSC – An international nonprofit, the Forest Stewardship Council is dedicated to sustainability, setting standards on forest products.


SFI – A North American certification organization, The Sustainable Forestry Initiative certified forests that are environmentally sustainable.


PEFC – Based in Switzerland, The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes is a nonprofit responsible for administering over two-thirds of the world’s globally certified forested area. In addition, 100% of all Quebecois lands managed by Domtar are FSC and FSI-certified.

 

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