Thursday, October 19, 2023
When it comes to accessing knowledge, whether from a cultural or scientific point of view or simply for entertainment, the rules of the circular economy work better than ever. For example, if someone reads a book and gives, sells, or lends it to someone else, both will have had access to its information and the physical object, which, far from having an expiration date, will be timeless and can be used later by anyone at any time. Books are doors to human knowledge and, as the treasures they are, a garbage collector in the Çankaya neighborhood of Ankara, Turkey, decided in 2016 to collect and compile all the books he came across in his daily work. His dream was to create a bookstore to serve the community, and he succeeded, to the point that in only 8 months he had 5,000 copies distributed in 17 categories. Three years later, more than 25,000 books were available to readers.
However, regardless of each book's content, it is worth asking whether, apart from the waste it may leave behind when it is no longer considered useful, producing it leads to a significant environmental impact. Although there are not many studies and reports on the subject, in the United States alone, more than 2,000 books are published each year, consuming around 16 million tons of paper. Translated into the direct impact, these figures collected by the Renovables Verdes portal mean that 32 million trees are cut down each year for this. And in Spain? According to an estimate by authors Jordi Panyella and Manuel Gil, published in Publisher Weekly, Spain emits more than 79,000 tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) per year. The figure refers to the 2021 fiscal year and is obtained by multiplying the 198,132,000 copies published by 400 grams of GHG. A calculation based on estimates provided by the German publishing industry.
Given the magnitude of these figures, it seems obvious that the most effective way to avoid environmental impact is to start applying the first two Rs of the circular economy—reduce and reuse. In the case of the latter, besides the Ankara library mentioned previously, there are numerous examples of how books can have infinite opportunities to be read, either through initiatives such as bookcrossing or through old-timey bookstores. While the first concept refers to the practice of leaving books in public places so that other readers can pick them up, read them, and then repeat the dynamic, second-hand bookstores professionalize the process by providing added value, such as the selection of pieces in optimal conditions, cataloging by areas or disciplines, identification of hard-to-find books, monetization of transactions, in addition to advice and direct customer service.
This is the case of Lost Things, an establishment located in downtown Madrid that has been offering its customers "more or less vintage objects" for more than a decade, as its manager, Jordi Romeu, asserted. "We sell music in every format, and we also have some electronic devices such as cameras and walkmans. For books, people donate them when they want to get rid of them, although we can also find them in flea markets or places of interest. In the second-hand market, works by authors such as Hermann Hesse, Kerouac, Bukowsky, Murakami, García Márquez, Cortázar, Unamuno, and Valle-Inclán are very successful," he acknowledged. Regarding the environmental benefits of his work, Jordi explained that "these products do not lose their utility and can pass through many hands. Consumers, especially ones who want to save money or are conscious of sustainability, are less and less concerned about new items.
With a similar business model, but, in this case, with the intention of reaching a wide audience, the Re-Read chain was created. "Our motto is Reduce, Reuse, & Read, because we feel very committed to the environment and our main objective is to extend the life of existing products," said Nicolás Weber, director of Re-Read Librería Lowcost. So much so that on their website they have a real-time counter where you can see how many books are recycled in their 56 establishments each year—1,973,857 in 2022; 1,879,065 in 2021; and 1,373,068 books in 2020—as well as the liters of water saved and the trees not cut down.
Regarding the profile of person interested in this kind of circular economy, Nicolás noted that "it's our neighbors who bring us the books, although when there are large numbers of them, we pick them up. We want to be a local store. And that is why our main customers tend to live nearby and come by for weekend reading or for their kids." In addition, Re-Read has noticed an interesting behavior: "There are also many book lovers who, as soon as they pass in front of one of our shop windows, can't help themselves and come in to look. There are also booksellers who come in search of good opportunities," he stated.
Can digitalization be used to be sustainable in this sector?
Any attempt to minimize this industry's impact on the environment cannot ignore the fact that, before reusing, we can (and should) reduce. This is where e-books become particularly important. Despite the debate they have sparked among readers since their beginnings, ebooks have made a place for themselves on the bedside tables of readers around the world. They're comfortable, cheap, and... pollute less? Or maybe not? Once again, Jordi Panyella has looked into the matter and has come to some surprising conclusions. The cultural activist and cooperative editor explained in an article written in collaboration with Marta Escamilla, which compiles some of the most relevant data on the issue, that "45% of the energy footprint of the digital environment comes from producing the units, and the rest is from using them." Internet and data consumption are very polluting: "If the web were a country, it would be the sixth in emissions. And if we were to add the emissions from electronic devices that require browsing, it would be the industry that generates the most emissions by far," the same article stressed.
According to the Spanish Association of Pulp, Paper, and Cardboard Manufacturers (ASPAPEL) "you need to read at least 33 books of 360 pages (each) on a digital reading device or ereader to offset the environmental cost of the entire life cycle of printing on paper." However, these figures clash with those provided by the Cleantech Group in their report The environmental impact of Amazon's Kindle, where they argue that "the carbon emitted in the life cycle of an e-book device is completely offset after the first year of use. Any additional year results in savings equivalent to an average of 168 kilograms of CO2 per year (the emissions produced from producing and distributing 22.5 books). Although there are additional savings in toxic emissions from publishing and water use. (...) And if the entire memory of the e-book were used, the savings in greenhouse gas emissions would be 11,185 kilograms." The debate is now open.
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