Books in the landfill

October 16, 2007


So, I signed up for Blog Action Day, and then promptly forgot about it. It was yesterday. Here’s what I’d planned to talk about, with a lot less research than the original idea. Sorry about that:

I’m pretty angry about the environmental state of publishing. We are not, by any extent of the imagination, a green industry.

Let’s start with returns. Returns are the process by which booksellers can return unsold stock to the publishers. It’s been around for a while, but publishers don’t like to talk about the actual figures. Some have admitted that return rates have topped 50%, and the numbers have been rising for some time.

What does that mean? It means that half of all books printed in the UK are never read. And they’re not redistributed either, but returned to the publishers or otherwise disposed of, usually pulped or simply placed in landfill.

Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement last year (behind a paywall, I’m afraid) environmental scientist and author David Reay wrote:

What with production and transport, the average paperback has eaten its way through 4.5kWh of energy by the time it gets to a reader. In terms of climate impact, this is equivalent to about 3kg of carbon dioxide emissions for every glossy new textbook. So, for a print run of 10,000, there is a cost of 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide not mentioned on the dust jackets. But this is a best-case scenario. The sale-or-return system virtually guarantees that the damage is much more severe. If half the books delivered to bookshops then have to be trucked back to the publisher and pulped, there’s yet another great belch of greenhouse gases to ultimately heat up the cheeks of both publisher and author…

Assume that the average print run for those 200,000 titles is just 1,000 copies. That’s 200 million books coming off the presses in a year – 600,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and, even if we assume very low return rates, enough pulped book to fill the dining hall at Hogwart’s several times over.

In terms of its contribution to global warming, UK publishing in effect puts an extra 100,000 cars on our roads. Our esteemed seats of learning are a sizeable cog in this engine: the average undergraduate buys at least three volumes per course, while most academic offices are crammed from floor to ceiling with dusty tomes…

On top of that, only a tiny fraction of books are printed on recycled paper – or even FSC-certified sustainable pulp. Note the total absence of firm, quantifiable commitments from UK publishers to Greenpeace’s Book Campaign, compared to Canada, France, Spain, Italy, Germany…

No one in publishing wants returns. But until publishers can agree on a few things – any thing – they remain in hock to the booksellers, who use the returns system to facilitate their pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap attitude to literature. Returns are bad for the environment, and they’re poisonous to literature. They also run down publishers’ profits and take out money that could be used for good initiatives, like real, achievable commitments to sustainable/recycled paper stocks.

This being booktwo, I’m forced to point out that ebooks would go a long way to helping with some of these issues (although by no means all). But ebooks are a way off. We can do things now. Print less books, and force the retailers to order responsibly. This means selling through their existing stock, and not returning books from one branch while ordering from another, which I’ve seen countless times. In the long term, invest in ebooks. Take this seriously. Sort it out.

Image of book in landfill by Wader, under Creative Commons license.


  1. […] Today is the first day of a year without buying (or reading) a printed book. This is partly down to disgust at the waste in the book industry, partly as a step towards a ‘buy nothing‘ lifestyle and partly to put alternative media to the test. […]

    Pingback by Alex Lee — October 17, 2007 @ 9:18 am

  2. […] this week blogged about books and landfill. After visiting a major warehouse a couple of years ago, I was shocked that any return – even mint, […]

    Pingback by Times Emit: Fair Trade Books? — October 18, 2007 @ 1:22 pm

  3. At AOnL we’re definitely onside with this, having spent the past ten years initially banging the e-book drum, then retrenching to the POD position where, theoretically, the books are not produced until they are wanted.

    However, a worrying trend is emerging. Whilst the ‘newcomers’ to the book trade, such as Amazon, are grasping the concept of POD quite well and, in fact, revelling in it as it fits exactly their ‘just in time’ attitude to stock management, the ‘old school’ – Gardners in particular regard POD as merely an alternative source of titles.

    A particular recent event demonstrates this. One of our authors, having put in an immense amount of effort, persuaded dozens of individual branches of Waterstones to stock her book – produced by us in POD format. Waterstones ordering policy requires all product to be sourced via their wholesalers so a series of orders hit Gardners, who responded by consolidating their Waterstone orders to us and adding on some more copies ‘for good measure’. Whilst sales were good, indeed, probably exceeding the author’s expectations, there were still many unsold copies on Waterstone’s shelves following the Christmas Book Buying Frenzy and before the New Year New Titles (due to over-ordering by the branches)
    so these went back to Gardners.

    Despite our ‘no returns on POD’ agreement with Gardners they made a serious attempt to persuade us to take back the bulk of this ‘overstock’ and it took some serious negotiating to persuade them otherwise.

    So, who is at fault here? Should the author be blamed for enthusiastic promotion? Should the various Booksellers be blamed for wanting to provide choice for their customers? Should the wholesaler be blamed for making bad stock management decisions?

    I think the real culprit here is the delivery medium itself – the book. Even in the early days of AOnL, I disliked the concept of sitting at a computer to read a book. I campaigned vigorously on the side of the universally convenient paperback novel but eventually common sense prevailed, particularly with my proofreading work, and I became accustomed to reading offscreen. I now use a combination of my mobile phone and laptop to store (and edit) the books and aside from a somewhat limited supply of electronic material for personal enjoyment reading, I can’t imagine needing to read a paper book again. Real life continues though, and sadly it is unlikely to change dramatically in the remaining twilight years of my life but at least I’ll be able to keep myself warm in front of an open fireplace burning……..books?

    Comment by Derek Reece — February 10, 2008 @ 11:47 am

  4. […] are always returns. James Bridle of estimates that for some publishers this return rate is as high as 50 percent. He notes that: “half of all books printed in the UK are never read. And they’re not […]

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  6. […] unread books are converted back to pulp or dumped since most are not printed on recycled paper. The amount of carbon emissions in printed these books that are never read is staggering, it’s like putting 1 lac cars on the […]

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  7. […] are always returns. James Bridle of estimates that for some publishers this return rate is as high as 50 percent. He notes that: “half of all books printed in the UK are never read. And they’re not […]

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