Our thanks to author and consultant Guy Dauncey of Earth Future to suggesting we use his
paper, Going Carbon Neutral: A Guide for Publishers, to calculate greenhouse gas emissions attributable to over-printing of books by Canada's publishers because of the 'returnable books' business practice. This paper is available free of charge as a download:
Our thanks also to ecolibris for their formulae for calculating overall carbon footprint of the overprinted books in Canada.
Calculating the scale of greenhouse gas emissions and trees cut because of the Canadian book industry's insistence on overprinting
Our collective shame in hard numbers
About 100 million books are sold in Canada each year -- about 3 each for every man, woman and child. Best estimates are that Canada's book industry wastes another 50 million to over 100 million books every year. More exact figures are impossible to obtain at this point because publishers keep their figures a closely-guarded secret. People working at distributors and wholesalers, through whose hands most of the returned books pass, do confirm the oft-cited statistic that 40 percent to 80 percent of books sent to stores on consignment are return and eventually pulped, depending on the genre. The worst genre is the appropriately-named "pulp fiction" paperback -- the covers are stripped off if not sold over a few weeks or months, and the insides sent directly off for disposal.
We used the most conservative figure of attributing 50 million books overprinted due to publishers selling books to stores "on a returnable basis" (consignment). The production of paper used to manufacture 50 million books corresponds to the release of a staggering 50,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Using another formula, with the carbon footprint of 4.03 kg per book, puts the emissions from overprinting much higher at 201,000 tonnes.
The transport of these books from point of manufacture to the publisher's warehouse (then sometimes on to a distributor or wholesaler), then to the bookstore, then back as an unwanted item... this was calculated using an ultra low figure of only 1,000 km travel per book. We believe this is very low because Canada is so vast: books are often manufactured overseas or in Manitoba before being shipped to Toronto, then off to a bookstore in the Maritimes or Western Canada, before being returned to an Ontario warehouse before disposal. The fuel only, assuming every truck is full with 24 pallets, each with 700 kg of books, is 300,000 litres of diesel -- releasing 850 metric tonnes of CO2 for entirely unnecessary transportation.
Waste processing could release a further 16,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases, though one expects that most of the paper is sent off for recycling.
The number of trees sacrificed for the book industry's archaic and broken business model is approximately 600,000 trees annually. [Scientists use different formulae, so this can safely be stated as between 350,000 to 700,000 trees per year.]
If you work in the book industry and feel ashamed of the environmental damage caused by "returnable books", please write or email to the head of Chapters-Indigo and the CEOs of the largest publishing houses. That small group of individuals could promptly end this shameful practice with a one-page memorandum of understanding.
If you are an author or a book buyer, please spread the word to everyone you know in the media. Only by exposing this problem will we have change.
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One of the formulae we used came from Conservatree, for calculating number of trees needlessly sacrificed in the papermaking for overprinting of books in Canada.