When book publishing is the third-largest industry to emit greenhouse gases worldwide, how guilty does that make us as book-lovers?

Paper and ink are not the most environmentally friendly products to be mass produced on a large scale. Publishers have had to rethink how they produce, print and push their books out to a multi billion dollar market while reducing their impact on the environment.

Readers on the receiving end of this industry have been contributing to a strain on our environment possibly without even knowing of their impact. Purchasing brand new books as well as the convenient choice of ordering them online can significantly contribute to the world’s carbon emissions through just shipping and book production alone.

So could we possibly be harming the environment through our love for reading? 

The answer is quite the opposite, as it is not our passion for literature but rather it is our book-buying habits that can pile up to produce millions of carbon emissions each year. 

How does this happen? The most obvious concern is the use of pulp and paper, which contributes to 1.3% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to a study by Yale. 

A single book alone is estimated to produce 7.5kg of carbon dioxide. Other copies may generate more depending on its size and type. Multiply this figure by the number of books on your shelf and this could add up to the hundreds, maybe even the thousands, in carbon emissions produced.  

On a larger scale, the book production process amounts to more than 40m metric tons of carbon dioxide globally. This makes book publishing the third-largest industry to emit greenhouse gases in the world. 

Despite the devastating effects of this environmental pollution, thousands of books continue to be discarded and destroyed. Data by WordsRated revealed that more than 16,000 truckloads of books are thrown out without being read each year.

People were also found to remove an average of 15 books from their shelves every year, according to a report by World of Books.

Publishing companies have tried to be sustainable. Penguin Random House and Macmillan impressively halved their global carbon emissions between 2018 to 2021.

As readers we are also becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of buying second-hand. Not only are they good for the environment, but they are a cheaper alternative.

There were 378 million books sold in the UK in 2020 and 32% of them were pre-loved. While the pre-loved culture has grown considerably through the efforts of charity shops such as Oxfam or the British Red Cross, we are not as green as we need to be yet.

Often, books that are donated and do not sell are destroyed instead of recycled due to issues like the non-recyclable glue in its binding. 

1. World of Books

This UK-based online bookshop works with both charity shops and readers to rehome unwanted books that do not sell to prevent them from ending up in landfill.

Anyone can sell their unwanted books to WOB on their online sales website called Ziffit. These books are then sold on their website or recycled. The bookshop reported that it rehomed nearly 16m books between 2021 and 2022 which was equivalent to saving approximately 1,400 trees a day.

They continue to redistribute and recycle over 30,000 tonnes of books a year, and these practices have helped them to become completely carbon neutral.

Aside from rehoming millions of books already, the company has now launched its own charity to donate books and raise money for charities such as St. Peter’s Hospice to help promote literacy. 

Photo credits: World of Books

“World of Books was founded on the ethos to do good, help charities and benefit the environment,” explained Graham Bell, CEO of WOB. “Now, with the launch of our very own charity, The WOB Foundation, we look forward to another amazing year of making a positive impact for people and the planet.”

Photo Credits: Better World Books

2. Better World Books

This online bookstore was started by three college friends in Indiana, US, and has now grown to sell more than 250 million books worldwide. Not only do they sell second-hand books on their online UK website, Better World Books also offers carbon neutral shipping for a small additional cost.

This means they compensate for whatever carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere through funding renewable energy projects that absorb carbon dioxide and in turn balances the emissions previously produced. 

Their sustainability impact has saved nearly 70,000 trees that is equivalent to taking more than 500 cars off the road for a year. The company had also created book banks that have helped them in their journey to going green. People can drop their pre-loved books at their first book bank placed outside the University of Central Lancashire. So far, the company has reused and recycled over 300 million books to date, alongside donating 20 million more towards a good cause. 

Biblio has a collection of 70 million books that are either used, rare or out-of-print, which means you can still shop for collectables and special editions without increasing your environmental impact. This online bookshop offers carbon neutral shipping for free through their programme called ‘ecosend’ in partnership with Native Energy.

They fund projects such as wind farms and turbines in the US that offsets the emission of greenhouse gases that they may have created in the first place.

Aside from recycling books and offsetting carbon emissions, the team also encourages buying books locally to reduce the carbon footprint.

The distribution of books is thought to form 14% of greenhouse gas emissions according to data by WordsRated – making book retailing the third largest greenhouse gas emitter. 

Photo Credits: Biblio

Biblio is one of the firsts to offer free carbon neutral shipping, and none of these costs are incorporated into the prices of the books that they sell. This means that readers can support this environmentally friendly initiative without any hidden costs involved.

Our sustainable book options are growing and they’re not expensive – making it a cheap way to play your part and help the environment.

Buying pre-loved is only one way to practise reading sustainably.

There is also the option of donating, recycling and reselling books to prevent them from ending up in landfills that contribute towards global warming. Other greener ways to read can include e-books and audiobooks that save on hundreds of kilograms of carbon emissions per book in itself.

But it’s important to remember the production of gadgets such as Kindles still creates a large carbon footprint when they are made. Although, they are greener than physical books in the long-run.

Despite these greener alternatives, publishers are continuing to churn out millions of brand-new titles each year, accompanied by special editions and new hardback covers to boost sales, despite its hazardous effects towards the environment.

We know that as long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. But are pretty covers and aesthetics really worth it for what it might do to our planet? 

If you liked this post then read Can Cli-Fi save the world? or Is listening the new reading? The pros and cons of audiobooks next.

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Shruthi Selvarajan

Shruthi Selvarajan


Shruthi is a journalism student with a passion for reading, travel, food and music. She likes to spend her free time at Waterstones or journalling whenever she can. She’s passionate about human connection and relationships in books, so that we can learn to better ourselves and how we communicate with others.

Favourite genre: Contemporary romance.