I write environmental nonfiction books that call kids to action. I want children to feel empowered to save our planet from past generations’ hubris. Endangered species, trophic cascades, and marine debris are just a few of the topics I’ve tackled. Now, I’d like to motivate a different audience to act: the publishing industry.
I attended the American Library Association’s annual conference in June to receive a Robert F. Sibert Honor for Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem. In my free time, I explored the exhibit hall for books. I returned home with some amazing finds, but also a feeling of unease due to the inclusion of plastic marketing materials in many giveaways.
Ever since Annie Crawley and I collaborated on Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, my plastic radar operates on overdrive. In the ALA exhibit hall, more than 900 exhibitors offered a dizzying array of gifts—magnets, bags, headphones, microfiber cloths, postcards with kites attached, beaded necklaces, water bottles—all in the name of selling books.
On behalf of my fellow authors, we thank you for these efforts. But the gifts are often made of unrecyclable plastic encased in single-use plastic bags. With over eight million metric tons of plastic thrown into the ocean annually, I believe an industry that generates almost $30 billion in revenue can do better in limiting the use of throwaway plastics.
Publishers have made a concerted effort to bring more diverse books to the stage and have battled against the injustices of our current immigration policy. Isn’t it time to also speak for the ocean, which influences the weather and is home to a huge proportion of the biodiversity on this planet? By the year 2050, marine plastic will outweigh all fish.
I know many publishers use recycled paper; it’s an admirable step that doesn’t go far enough. Annie and I regularly receive notes from kids making a difference in the fight against plastic. We’ve educated friends and colleagues about the evils of marine debris. As a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regional advisor, I asked conference attendees to bring reusable water bottles, and I provided an urn of water for fill-ups. That practice is still in effect today, even though I’ve retired as RA.
I would also love to make a difference in my chosen industry. So, I appeal to my publishers and all publishers. Please consider the following ideas as you promote your authors’ work. Perhaps the ALA 2019 exhibit hall, and those of other major conferences, will be kinder to our world.
Below are ways publishers can reduce plastic consumption:
1. Those free tote bags are appreciated, but consider ones made from natural fibers rather than plastic (which can’t be recycled when they wear out).
2. Rethink giveaways. Consider candy wrapped in foil or paper rather than plastic. Ditch plastic items such as necklaces and microfiber cloths (which, when washed, release tiny plastic fibers into our watersheds). Instead, consider beeswax wraps or bamboo cloths sans plastic packaging.
3. Send review copies of books in cardboard mailers rather than plastic-lined envelopes.
4. Use paper packing tape for mailings and shipments. Replace polystyrene peanuts or plastic air-filled bags with biodegradable corn starch peanuts or shredded newspaper.
5. Consider using paper straps instead of sending sets of books shrink-wrapped in plastic.
6. Magazine publishers: please stop wrapping magazines in plastic. Consider the paper alternative now in use by publications such as National Geographic.
7. Audit break rooms and kitchens. Are there polystyrene (foam) cups? Plastic stirrers? Straws? Plastic utensils? Consider compostable cups, plates, and utensils—or, better yet, bring reusable ones from home.
8. Look at that cup of designer coffee on your desk. Is it in a plastic to-go cup with a plastic lid and a sassy plastic stirrer? Was it made with a single-serving plastic coffee pod? Buy a reusable travel mug or compostable coffee pods and congratulate yourself on giving the ocean a voice.
Lastly, I want to give a huge shout-out to ALA for creating sturdy ID badges without the plastic holder—they have set an example for every organization hosting a conference.
The Nature Generation, an organization that inspires kids to become environmental stewards, says that there is no Planet B. Isn’t it time the publishing industry stepped up for Planet A?
Patricia Newman’s most recent book is Neema’s Reason to Smile (Lightswitch Learning).