While it can be difficult to find the time to read the latest sustainability and environmental titles. It can save us lots of time and money in the long term. From avoiding misinformation and products that are inevitably harmful, to simple solutions for age-old problems, nothing beats being informed.
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One of the best and oldest ways of being in the know is to pick up a good book. But are books eco-friendly? Or do we need to make sure to reach for sustainable books?
Books, as we know them today, have been around since the 1st century CE in the form of codices created by the Romans. They were made out of parchment paper and bound with wooden covers. These portable rectangular prisms were actually an evolution of the ancient scrolls used as far back as the 4th Millenium BCE which could be up to 52 feet long and were most often made using the Papyrus plant. (Google Arts & Culture)
Other notable evolutions include the invention of the printing press, the modern glue-bound books (instead of being sewn), print-on-demand (which was seen as more eco-friendly), and the e-book (which was actually invented back in 1971 CE), and the audio-book.
Like lots of things in our world, however, some options are in fact more sustainable than others. So what do we need to know about sustainable books? That’s what we're going to explore here, complete with a list of some of the best environmental and sustainability books to help you on your journey to a more sustainable life.
If you would like to learn about what sustainable living is before you dive into one of our recommendations check out this article on sustainable living.
Are books eco-friendly?
If you are wondering whether books are eco-friendly, here’s what you need to know. It turns out paper books require a lot of resources and are responsible for a hefty contribution to our carbon emission problem.
A study of the US book industry found that the publishing industry consumed about 30m trees in 2006 alone. Yes, that ‘m’ is for million. The study also found that the publishing industry alone was responsible for emitting the equivalent of 12.4m metric tons of carbon emissions (yes million again) in that same year. The latter is the equivalent of powering over 1.4 million homes for one year. (The Guardian, 2013)
Fortunately, there are several sustainable alternatives here too. A great place to start is to look for used books instead of new ones wherever possible. You may also have the option to rent books online or to borrow books from your local library as well.
Some libraries even offer an online catalog which you can access using e-reader apps that are compatible with devices you already own. There are also stand-alone e-reader apps where you can purchase and read books without an e-reader too. All you need is a smartphone or tablet.
If you do have to buy a new book, do not despair. Supporting local bookstores is a great option when buying new books. In doing so you are both supporting your local economy and reducing the environmental footprint associated with shipping. Nowadays many mom-and-pop bookstores also offer online services too and a quick search will tell you which ones do. Whenever possible, try avoiding giants like Amazon but if you cannot, consider opting for the used options they offer wherever possible.
Is Kindle sustainable?
While Kindles and other e-readers might appear to be a more sustainable option and can be in some cases, there are several factors to keep in mind before settling on an e-reader like the Kindle.
According to the Guardian, making a Kindle requires as much CO2 as what is required to make 30 books, so right off the bat, one would have to read a minimum of 30 books on a Kindle just to break even.
If we take a look at the plethora of minerals, plastics, and other materials required to make an e-reader, it becomes even more clear this option should be chosen carefully. Producing just one e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals like coltan (which is linked to conflict in the Congo). That one e-reader also requires 79 gallons of water and 100-kilowatt hours of fossil fuels which equates to 66 pounds of CO2 emissions.
Books on the other hand only require a fraction of the resources, no coltan, and no electricity or batteries to power them.
If a reader is able to read enough books to benefit from the emissions offset by using an e-reader instead of grabbing the equivalent in physical books, e-readers like the Kindle also pose a problem when it comes to upgrades and disposal. As a result, e-readers can wind up contributing to our e-waste problem if not disposed of properly. Some companies do offer recycling programs so be sure to look out for that if you do choose to get an e-reader. You can also check out this article on How To Recycle E-Waste Properly.
The bottom line when opting for eco-friendly books is to weigh your options while ensuring that you settle on what works best for you and for the environment.
8 Must-Read Sustainable Books
Whether you are choosing to read on an e-reader, on your cell phone, on an iPad, or on a borrowed copy, there are plenty of prolific sustainability books to choose from. So without further ado, let’s get into 8 of the best environmental and sustainability books out there, from some of the best environmental authors you need to know about:
1. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
In this must-read, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart offer an integrated design framework that challenges the linear and wasteful production model we live in now. Rooted in design and science, McDonough and Braungart make an irrefutable case for circular economies, the elimination of the concept of waste, and the use of design as a regenerative force to transform our present and future.
2. 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste by Kathryn Kellogg
If you are interested in reducing your waste or switching to a zero-waste lifestyle, this is a great place to start. With lots of tips and DIY recipes for beauty and home products, Kathryn Kellogg will guide you through reducing your environmental footprint using a friendly blueprint of realistic lifestyle changes. If you are just curious and would like to learn more first, get into the basics in my article on going zero waste.
3. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson
Written by Bea Johnson, a well-regarded leader in the zero waste movement, Zero Waste Home is a step-by-step guide for creating a zero waste home of your own. Featuring recipes, tips, and everything you need to know about how to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, this is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the zero-waste lifestyle. They are likely to want to keep it handy.
4. The Silent Spring by Rachel Carlson
In one of the most influential books of the US environmental movement, nature author and former marine biologist Rachel Carlson exposes the hazards of DDT and its impact on both humans and nature. This book is credited as the catalyst for the eventual banning of the substance, and for shifting the public debate on how safe the unrestrained use of pesticides really was.
5. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, this novel is the first of the MaddAddam trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world dominated by multinational corporations, genetic experimentation, and pharmaceutical engineering. A great option for teenagers, or for anyone looking for a fun fictional read while still considering issues in sustainability and environmentalism.
6. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
In this eye-opening account of the life-altering impact humans are having on the planet, Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert describes her journey around the world, documenting what is predicted to be the 6th mass extinction event of the planet's history. With the help of research from over half a dozen disciplines, Kolbert will tell you just how humans' most lasting legacy may be the most devastating mass extinction event of the last half-billion years.
7. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
In what is referred to as “this generation’s Silent Spring” by the Washington Post, columnist and editor David Wallace offer what can be regarded as one of the best books on climate change. This must-read describes what life will be like for those who live through the climate crisis, and the impact the climate crisis will have on everything from global politics through to the trajectory of human progress.
8. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality by Robert D. Bullard
Often referred to as the father of environmental justice, Robert D. Bullard discusses toxic factories, their disproportionate presence in Black communities, their impact, and the need for mobilization within these communities. The 3rd of his 18 books on the topic, Dumping in Dixie is a great place to start if you want to learn about environmental racism and environmental justice.
A final word on Sustainable Books
Whether you are looking for sustainable books, the best books on sustainable living, or the best environmental books there is definitely something out there for you. Using these recommendations as a guide, always try for a quick search if you cannot find what you are looking for.
If you are looking to learn more about sustainability in other mediums like podcasts here are 10 Environmental Podcasts to start with on your journey to greater sustainability. Or you can take a look at these zero waste documentaries. And remember online thrift stores are a great way to find old books!
I also have some great articles like these 5 Canadian Environmental Leaders You Should Know and lots more on topics like sustainable and ethical fashion, clean beauty, and blue beauty, if you would like to keep exploring at the Eco Hub.
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