Sustainable Reading 101

Image Credit: Emma Lambkin

Laura Kenny looks at the impact reading has on the environment and how to move towards more sustainable reading choices.

Reading is a powerful tool that educates, informs, and inspires us to act more sustainably. Books that focus on the environment form a critical resource in today’s world. Information about the climate crisis and the impact we are having on the environment is a pervasive issue affecting all areas of life that these texts help to address critically. Simultaneously, we are surrounded by books, magazines, and newspapers in this same world. University campuses are practically teeming with books from the library collection to students’ compilations during their studies. With something so embedded in our daily experience, it would be easy to forget the impact of these texts’ production and consumption on the environment.

It is estimated that the worldwide paper industry makes up six percent of the world’s total industrial consumption, making it the fourth-largest industrial energy user globally. These figures are hugely alarming, but what is even more striking is the cost of water used in paper production it has on the environment. The manufacturing of one ton of paper is more than goes into the manufacturing process of other materials in any other industry. The paper produced from trees is one of the leading costs of deforestation. A closer inspection into the world of sustainable reading reveals interesting findings of what reading practices count as sustainable. It may come as a surprise to discover that, despite popular thought, nearly all forms of reading are not sustainable.

Reading from a phone, tablet, or computer can be just as damaging as a book that has been produced from paper that comes from trees.

E-readers are one such reading format that is not as effective as you might think when reading sustainably. Reading from a phone, tablet, or computer can be just as damaging as a book that has been produced from paper that comes from trees. Many e-readers consume resources such as electricity, energy, packaging, and transport. Many e-books are produced with non-renewable sources, making them even less environmentally friendly. On top of that, the power required to charge all these devices impacts the environment. 

Equally, audiobooks are sometimes offered up as a solution for sustainable reading because no actual printed book is employed during the process. They indeed mitigate the impact of reading on paper production. However, audiobooks require a device such as a mobile phone which guzzles power and energy in another way. Audiobooks do offer a solution to some degree if one is looking to minimise their impact on the environment. 

One of the best courses of action for reading sustainably which gives the reader more control over their environmental footprint is buying recycled paper books. Texts marked with the Forest Stewardship Council icon come from sustainably managed forests and offer the possibility of green publishing. The trees and forests that produce this paper will be replanted once they are felled, which is a reassuring promise that can put one’s mind at ease when looking to purchase a book from a shop. 

Texts that challenge how we live and encourage us to make positive lifestyle adjustments are vital to understanding the environmental crisis and sustainable living problems.

However, the real secret to mitigating your environmental footprint when reading is buying as few books as possible. Sharing books with friends between one another or through a book group, buying second-hand from charity shops that house shelves of colourful paperbacks in need of a home and loaning from a library are all constructive ways to read without additional texts being printed and consumed. Charity shops are one of the most exciting places to look because of the endless possibilities that arrive for stumbling upon unusual or diverse books. 

When it comes to second-hand bookstores, there are fantastic options in Dublin close to UCD. Raven Books, located in Blackrock, is particularly close, and features a myriad of exciting and quirky second-hand books, including texts from afar in different languages. Oxfam Books is another beautiful treasure trove located in the heart of Dublin’s Temple Bar. There are many other options, including a small and quality selection in The Winding Stair, a stone’s throw from Oxfam Books. Allan Hanna’s Bookshop in Rathmines is another notable option that finds itself between the other choices named above. Of course, one couldn’t miss Chapters on Parnell Square, which formally was one of the biggest stockists of second-hand books pre-pandemic. Now, with the store planning to close its doors in early 2022, stock is sold at a third of the price, and by buying, you are saving hundreds of books from landfill.

The greater area of Dublin also has many public libraries run by different councils that can quickly be joined by students living or studying at UCD. The various libraries at UCD are also filled with many books, many of which are categorised as books for academic purposes. However, a closer inspection through the plethora of bookshelves reveals a surprising number of texts that lie outside the realm of strict academic discourse and disciplines. A local library card allows one to borrow books from all libraries in the area, and most libraries outside of the constituency will allow readers to borrow from there too. During the pandemic, libraries also allowed readers to ship books straight to their homes, and their online databases make it very easy to order sought-after novels from one library to the one closest to you. 

Once everyone finds a sustainable solution that works for them, the most impactful change that can be taken in the right direction is to continue reading books about sustainability, climate change, and the environment. Texts that challenge how we live and encourage us to make positive lifestyle adjustments are vital to understanding the environmental crisis and sustainable living problems. A few noteworthy texts include Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice, David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. Consuming books that inform or encourage us about these issues and overcome them is one of the most potent tools for building a bright and sustainable future. 

And for the readers who seek to use e-readers over physical books, there are some great alternatives too. Though using something like a Kindle doesn’t totally mitigate all kinds of energy consumption, it does help to cut back on the demand for paper. The Kindle itself is a great option for reading, as Amazon makes it very easy to buy books online and send them directly to the e-reader, while services such as Kindle Unlimited give those with endless demand more and more options. Other e-readers will do the same job, and even using an app on a phone, tablet, iPad, or laptop, gives the same effect of avoiding paper consumption. These e-readers also work out cheaper over time for the reader; the lowest cost e-reader and six books might cost you about €70, whereas to buy perhaps four brand-new, hardcover books would cost you the same amount, especially basing off the ever-raising prices of books in popular stores such as Easons. 

With the combined number of books purchased, both e-books and physical books, rising to an estimated 942 million in 2020, sales are up, and staying up, with sales each year beating sales the year before, the fact is that the publishing industry is putting pressure on our forests. But with so many options - buying secondhand, borrowing, using e-readers or listening to audiobooks - there is surely a more sustainable way for each kind of consumption.