Jonathan Franzen’s last novel, Purity , had its devotees and its critics. But I doubt anybody associated with the book would have smiled at a decision Franzen made in October 2010, about a month ahead of its publication date — pulping 80,000 copies after his British publishers apparently printed the wrong file, instead of the final proofs. Think about that: 80,000 books, fresh off the press, set to become mush, all because one person clicked the wrong icon on a desktop somewhere. The author copped a bit of flak for this, as one might expect. Franzen the casual, unthinking murderer of hundreds of trees, and so on.
There were some well-meaning but naïve noises made about how this incident proved the massive wastefulness of print, how it made the move towards e-books all but inevitable. Champions of such a large-scale shift would do well to ask themselves a simple question — if cutting down trees to produce books is hurting the environment to such a catastrophic extent, why are books of eco-criticism still printed? Doesn’t this feel like a self-goal for people who profess to care about the environment? And if so, how have e-retail giants, PR war chests at their disposal, failed to remind brick-and-mortar publishers of this fact every day of the week?
To answer this question, it is essential to first assess what goes into the making of your average paperback. First comes the pulp. For the modern-day book, the pulp used to make pages often comes from parts of the tree already used elsewhere. Wood shavings off furniture-legs-in-progress, sawdust produced in industrial processes, and so on.
There have been organised international efforts to convince publishers to adopt environment-friendly practices — like the Green Press Initiative, which counts Hachette and Scholastic among its participants. Its mission is “to conserve natural resources, preserve endangered forests, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and minimise impacts on indigenous communities”. A lot of British books, in particular, carry a small symbol that reminds readers that none of the paper used to make their favourite potboiler has come from endangered forests.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that all of this is fiction and that we’re taking an axe to a fresh tree every time John Grisham finishes a book (which is to say, like clockwork every six months). How many books would an average tree yield? According to conservatree.com, one tree (height calculated by averaging out mean hardwood and softwood dimensions) yields roughly 16.67 reams of copy paper, or about 8,300 A3-sized sheets. Even by conservative estimates, this is sufficient to print 20-25 books, after taking into account the thicker, glossier paper used to manufacture a lot of covers.
And what of the alternative? Emma Rich’s 2009 study ‘The Environmental Impact of Amazon’s Kindle’ found that the average carbon dioxide emission required to produce a single Kindle is 168kg. In comparison, the average book leaves only about 7.5kg of carbon dioxide emissions in its wake. Does this mean that reading 20-odd books on your Kindle will repay your ‘green debt’? Well, no. Because as Rich found, a total of 33 pounds of minerals and about 79 gallons of water are also used for every Kindle manufactured. Another factor is the difficulty with which electronic waste is dealt with, when compared to other forms of waste (paper waste, by the way, accounts for over a quarter of all landfills, according to Greenpeace).
When you factor in the landfill data, therefore, our picture is complete. It takes an average of 100 books read on the Kindle before you break even — that is, have the exact same environmental impact as you would after reading all 100 books in print.
Here’s the bad news: according to e-retailers’ own data, every Kindle now prevents the sale of 20-odd books every year. And the average lifecycle of a Kindle or a comparable device is three-and-a-half years. Basically, most of us buy a Kindle, read about 30 books on it in total (only about 30-40 per cent titles purchased are actually read), and then donate it to the global electronics landfill.
As things stand right now, therefore, print books remain better for the environment. About three times as much, actually (100 e-books read per Kindle being the ‘break even’ cut-off; we’re currently doing about 30 per unit). We’re not going to be informed about this on TV. And most politicians hate the environment. Let books be the answer. The next time an eco-warrior quizzes you about your backward reading habits, ask them their Kindle score. If it’s still languishing in the 30s, make cruel fun of them until they score a century. Anything less would make them bigger tree-murderers than Franzen and his publishers.