Publish and be damned wasteful

October 13, 2006

Dave Reay is pleased to see his book on climate change in the shops but chastened by the harm publishing causes the environment.

The university bookshop is crammed full. Every corner not occupied by stacked boxes of new books is filled with reading list-toting students frowning at price tags on required texts. It's Christmas come early for the textbook publishers. But it's also something of a minor tragedy for the planet.

Even in the shadow of the environmental studies shelves - which groan under the weight of titles giving the expert synthesis on everything from arsenic pollution to climate change - I shudder to think of the potential for harm.

For, like Christmas, this first-term feeding frenzy at the bookshop will be short-lived. Soon the returns will begin flowing back to the publishers, vanload after vanload of unwanted stock hauled off to become a vast reservoir of fodder for the pulping machines.

The amount of waste involved in the book sale-or-return system is staggering. Trundled about in fleets of delivery vans across the country, the lucky volumes sit on bookshop shelves to catch the eye of a cash-replete buyer. The unlucky ones won't even make it out of the box. If they haven't shifted after about three months, the returns stickers come out and it's back into the van to clock up another few hundred "book miles".

For authors of books about the environment, such as myself, this is not a little embarrassing. Publishers are unsurprisingly cagey about providing figures on how many books are sent back to them. But one of the largest publishers in the UK has admitted that the return rate for some of its titles topped 50 per cent. That's an awful lot of pulp.

What with production and transport, the average paperback has eaten its way through 4.5kWh of energy by the time it gets to a reader. In terms of climate impact, this is equivalent to about 3kg of carbon dioxide emissions for every glossy new textbook. So, for a print run of 10,000, there is a cost of 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide not mentioned on the dust jackets. But this is a best-case scenario. The sale-or-return system virtually guarantees that the damage is much more severe. If half the books delivered to bookshops then have to be trucked back to the publisher and pulped, there's yet another great belch of greenhouse gases to ultimately heat up the cheeks of both publisher and author.

The UK publishes more book titles than any other country in the world - last year the figure topped 200,000. This is regarded by the UN as a sign of success, an index of the country's high standard of living, education and self-awareness. But, although readers may be all too aware of Wayne Rooney's favourite colour or Katie Price's views on body hair, the environmental impact of book publishing remains an untold story. It is, however, one that should concern every academic.

Assume that the average print run for those 200,000 titles is just 1,000 copies. That's 200 million books coming off the presses in a year - 600,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and, even if we assume very low return rates, enough pulped book to fill the dining hall at Hogwart's several times over.

In terms of its contribution to global warming, UK publishing in effect puts an extra 100,000 cars on our roads. Our esteemed seats of learning are a sizeable cog in this engine: the average undergraduate buys at least three volumes per course, while most academic offices are crammed from floor to ceiling with dusty tomes.

My office is no different, and staring back at me from one shelf is a copy of my recent book, Climate Change Begins at Home . This aims to set out ways in which we can fight back against the threat of global warming. To find that my book itself is a contributor to the problem is chastening.

The sale-or-return system is outdated and thoroughly wasteful. It is not uncommon for bookshops to return copies of a title to a publisher on the same day that they reorder more copies of the same book.

At least the number of returns for my book has been tiny. Palgrave Macmillan is trying to do something to cut waste by distributing small numbers and then responding to demand. Of course, e-books might end waste, but I would miss the smell and texture of printed books. It's the vats of pulp and the global warming I could do without.

As long as waste is cheap and the environmental impact of a book fails to be reflected in its cover price, the pulping machines will continue to work overtime. It stinks. Someone should write a book about it. Or then again, maybe not.

Dave Reay is a research fellow in the School of Geosciences at Edinburgh University and author of Climate Change Begins at Home , published by Macmillan, £8.99.

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