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Paperbacks, audiobooks, e-readers — the most sustainable way to read is complicated

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Summer reading season is here. Some readers will choose paperbacks, which are easy to borrow and share. Others will go digital for e-readers and audiobooks. They take up less space in the overhead bin. Is one choice more environmentally sustainable than the other? NPR's Chloe Veltman investigates.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Friends Karl Willis and Eileen Li are hanging out in a San Francisco cafe...

KARL WILLIS: Did you decide what you want?

VELTMAN: ...When I asked them about what they think is the most environmentally friendly reading format. Willis says printed books.

WILLIS: If one book could be read by a lot of people maybe that would be the best way.

VELTMAN: But Li says audiobooks have an advantage.

EILEEN LI: 'Cause it's just on the phone. It's an app. It doesn't need an extra device.

WILLIS: Yeah, I don't know. There's a bunch of factors, so I'm not sure exactly.

LI: Yeah.

WILLIS: All that stuff is really complicated.

VELTMAN: He's right. It's complicated. You have to think about the resources involved, how books and devices are shipped, what energy they take up, if they can be recycled. So print versus digital - it's not something most people consider when choosing how to read a book. Digital reading is on the rise, especially audiobooks. But print is still, by far, the most popular format.

ANDREW ALBANESE: Publishers are interested in preserving the business that they've created over hundreds of years.

VELTMAN: Publishers Weekly executive editor Andrew Albanese says this is why the industry is focused on improving the sustainability of printed books.

A ALBANESE: They are looking to run those print book businesses as efficiently as possible, as cleanly as possible, as green as possible.

VELTMAN: Traditional print publishing comes with a high carbon footprint. More than 30 million trees are felled each year in the U.S. to make books. Then there's the energy-intensive processes of pulping, printing and shipping, to say nothing of the many books that are destroyed because they remain unsold.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAMILY GUY")

SETH MACFARLANE: (As Brian Griffin) I wonder what this is. It's my book.

VELTMAN: In this 2020 episode of the Fox cartoon series "Family Guy," a publisher returns unsold books to their author.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAMILY GUY")

MACFARLANE: (As Stewie Griffin) Oh, this is so weird. Look at what they used to pack your book in - shredded up pieces of your book.

VELTMAN: Publishers don't want books to be shredded, so many are switching to on-demand printing or reducing their initial print runs to see how the titles sell first. Chronicle Books president Tyrrell Mahoney explains.

TYRRELL MAHONEY: We felt that it was better to have a higher cost and have less waste.

VELTMAN: And like many publishers today, Chronicle Books is trying to use more sustainable paper.

MAHONEY: We have this great partner in India who has now figured out how to use cotton-based, upcycled materials to print as paper.

VELTMAN: Publishers are also rethinking book design. Design director Lucy Albanese says new lightweight fonts have saved HarperCollins more than 200 million pages since last September.

LUCY ALBANESE: Eco-friendly fonts reduce our carbon footprints by using less ink and less paper.

VELTMAN: But digital reading is paperless, so it saves trees, pulping and shipping, and tech companies like Amazon offer recycling programs for old devices. Sounds great, right? Maybe we should all switch to e-readers.

MIKE BERNERS-LEE: No, it's not cut and dry.

VELTMAN: That's sustainability professor Mike Berners-Lee. He's the author of "The Carbon Footprint Of Everything." Berners-Lee says the average e-reader has a carbon footprint of around 80 pounds.

BERNERS-LEE: Which means that I've got to read about 36 small paperback books' worth on it before you break even.

VELTMAN: He says figuring out whether to take a digital device or a paperback to the beach ultimately depends on how much you read.

BERNERS-LEE: If you buy an e-reader and you read loads and loads of books on it, then it's the lowest-carbon thing to do. But if I buy it, read a couple of books and decide that I prefer paperback books, then it's the worst of all worlds.

VELTMAN: Berners-Lee adds, reading is still a pretty sustainable activity, whether you're using an e-reader, phone or old-fashioned paperback.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFT PUNK'S "VERIDIS QUO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.
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