Heavy glass bottles are wrong. They’re environmentally disastrous. Who needs them? What we’re buying is the wine, not the packaging! Why do they still exist? Wine should all come in lightweight glass bottles.
I remember when I got my first computer, back in the day when you had to learn ‘commands’ to format your documents, playing with the ‘search and replace’ function. And every now and then I still get a kick out of doing a little mischievous substitution.
Hardback books are wrong. They’re environmentally disastrous. Who needs them? What we’re buying is the words, not the packaging! Why do they still exist? Words should come in paperback.
At first glance, books seem to be relatively blameless when it comes to environmental damage. After all, the paper is made from trees, which are a ‘good thing’. And when we’re done with them, they can be recycled or left to decompose.
But, of course, nothing is ever quite that simple. When you fell a tree to turn it into paper, it’s no longer doing its job as means of capturing CO2. And the saplings we’re all busily planting aren’t going to replace it in that role until they’re a lot older and bigger. Every year, the US book, magazine and newspaper industries are responsible for the cutting down of 100m mature trees.
And books are not just lumps of paper. A lot of processing – and energy and chemicals - goes into their production. Most estimates suggest that by the time it gets to the retailer’s warehouse, an average book has clocked up a carbon footprint of at least a kilo – though a 2012 paper by Jean‐Robert Wells of the University of Quebec, calculated the impact of a popular paperback printed in Canada using American paper with a huge run of 400,000 copies at a massive 2.71 kg. Another US report come up with the even higher figure of four kilos and it has even been suggested that the figure could be as high as 7.5kg.
Establishing a correct average footprint is almost impossible, given the variation in the way books are printed, their sizes and print-runs. Ninety percent of books published in the UK, for example, sell fewer than 3,500 copies: all of the effort required to produce 1,000 books is going to be far more damaging – per copy – than 10 or 20 times that number.
A Finnish report which arrived at 1.25kg for a hardback, established that most of the carbon was attributable to the paper used for the pages and the energy required for printing, but the next largest culprit was the production of the boards for the rigid cover.
That’s not all, however: hardbacks are both bigger and much heavier than paperbacks, so their transportation has a significantly higher impact. Especially when individually delivered by Amazon.
And then there’s the literary equivalent of food waste. Printed books are generally sold to retailers on a sale-or-return basis, with around a third never finding a buyer. Between 65-95% of those unwanted volumes are then pulped – a figure that amounted to over 70m in 2009 in the UK alone. This process requires energy, of course, and once again, hardbacks need more of it because their covers have to be removed.
Which inevitably raises the question of e-books. If all we want is the words, why are we buying a three-dimensional book? Dedicated e-readers have their own carbon footprint of course, though the lack of backlighting makes them less energy-hungry than other tablets. Again, estimates vary, but it is generally agreed that once you have got through between 20 and 50 books on your device, every word you devour digitally will do much less damage to the planet than if you had read it on paper.
We’ve strayed a long way from wine, but I make no apology for doing so. Most books no more need hard covers or indeed any kind of printed format than most daily-drinking wines need anything more than a refillable bottle or environmentally-friendly bag-in-box. Nicely produced hardback books, however, are undeniably aesthetically more pleasing and satisfying to receive and own. And so – to their buyers and recipients – are heavier bottles.