Illustration by Ben Beechener

As I pack to move out at the end of every term, I am reminded, quite literally, of the weight of my book collection as I clumsily carry it down the stairs in poorly arranged boxes and curse myself for having gotten those free books that the library was giving away or for buying that bestseller displayed on every bookstore storefront that I optimistically thought I’d have the time to read during term. But besides the physical space and budget that the books I own take up, recently I have begun to ask myself: what is their environmental impact?

I have long felt guilty about my passion for physical books: the feel of paper, the scientifically-attractive book smell (it has been suggested that the lignin present in paper is closely related to vanillin – giving old books a faintly grass and vanilla like smell that can’t quite be replicated in digital copies… yet?), the colorful spines decorating the shelves, and their mere reassuring presence slowly inviting me to read just a bit more. I readily assumed that e-books were more eco-friendly, and although I’m no longer so sure it’s all that black and white, I still can’t say I feel completely blameless each time I get a copy of the latest trashy romance novel.

From a non-expert point of view, I have found the sheer number of environmental concerns in comparing print and digital book shopping quite overwhelming. What about second-hand books? How much of the paper in books is actually recycled in the long run? Is most of the paper in the publishing industry from sustainable forestry? How many hundreds of thousands of books are in warehouses across the world, discarded by publishers and not donated, not to count those actively destroyed? Under what conditions are paper books and e-readers manufactured, and what distances are they shipped across? How rapidly are e-readers discarded?

On the one hand, the digital format does seem to cut down on shipping and production costs per read – insofar as e-readers can be reused – but its impact is by no means null. The emissions and raw materials used in producing an e-reader are roughly equal to 40-100 books – so depending on how much you use it, and how frequently you upgrade it, an e-reader may or may not be the most sustainable alternative. Energy is used to download and access content on e-readers or smartphones alike, and that energy is itself often not green or carbon neutral. The literature on the lifecycle of e-communications and their environmental impact is relatively small given that this format is so new; that of paper is itself not so straightforward, as different types and manufacturers will have drastically different lifecycles. To make matters even more complicated, digital companies and paper companies alike have high stakes in presenting their alternatives as the greener solution – with the latter, for example,  going to high lengths to convince Fortune 500 companies to remove the “Go paperless” notices from their communications.

Moreover, it is worth wondering if the content of a book could itself have an environmental impact. Does a book that educates on climate change have the same footprint as one that misinforms with climate denialism, or one that does not concern it at all? I am inclined to think that the type of information does matter, which makes a straightforward calculation of environmental impact infinitely more complicated.

That being said, perhaps it is not a matter of finding a resoundingly superior alternative between the two – if anything, I’m starting to believe that there might be a place for both pixel and paper in our lives. The pandemic has definitely shown the convenience of easily accessible online information, without which many of us would have found it near impossible to conduct our studies or work remotely. Yet, even as the free availability of content on the internet increases by the day and alternatives for online shopping continue to multiply, paper books and in-person book shopping do not seem to be going away. The UK has recently seen record print book sales during the pandemic, with sales achieving an eight-year high of over 200m items sold in 2020 despite the closure of stores, and increasing by a third in just one week after the reopening of bookshops in April 2021, showing that we clearly find something valuable in the experience of flipping through pages in person before settling on a read. I sure missed the experience of in-person book shopping, as ultimately, bookshops are places to meet stories, to meet people, to be alone together; places of serendipity, to find what we didn’t know we were looking for –  with no algorithms (except maybe for those underlying the bestseller lists) to tell us what to look for and what to enjoy.

At the same time, the online shopping experience, with all its ease and home deliveries, is definitely becoming more mainstream. My own consumer habits have become more mixed recently, with e-books, print books bought in person, and print books bought online all featuring in my recent reads. I imagine many peoples’ book consumerism has become similarly varied.

So, what does – and what should – the future of book shopping hold?

Admittedly, I’m not so sure. As readers and individuals, it is up to us to make decisions about the impacts we incur, and how we minimize them – and we may well decide that the benefits that books bring to us, in whatever form, justify these costs. Whether as instruments of learning or of leisure, in print or online, books and bookshops will be around with us for the long-haul, and maybe it is for the better that they should be.