With the publishing industry dealing with problems caused first by the Great Recession and then by the transition to a more digitally oriented marketplace, it is easy to think that environmental concerns have been pushed far down companies’ to-do lists. But a report prepared this spring by the Book Industry Environment Council and the Green Press Initiative shows that the book industry has made progress in reducing its impact on forests and climate change. The report, “Book Industry Environmental Trends,” found an increase in the use of recycled fiber, an increase in the number of publishers that have environmental policies, and, most significantly, a reduction in the industry’s carbon footprint between 2006 and 2010.

The decline in carbon emissions was, in fact, due in part to both the economic downturn and the increase in e-books sales, which both contributed to a reduction in the amount of paper used by the industry. Paper manufacturers reported a 34% reduction in paper consumption between 2006 and 2010. The greater use of recycled content was another important factor in cutting emissions. Paper producers reported that the use of recycled fiber rose from 5% of all fiber in 2004 to 24% in 2010. The combination of reduced paper consumption and increased use of recycled fiber led the industry to cut its carbon emissions by at least 25% between 2006 and 2010, well ahead of targets set in 2008 when the Green Press Initiative and Book Industry Study Group produced the baseline report—“Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry”—on the book industry’s environmental impact. At that time, the newly formed BIEC set a goal of reducing emissions by 20% by 2020. The new report noted that even if paper consumption had remained flat between 2006 and 2010, the higher use of recycled fiber would have cut greenhouse gas emissions by 11%.

Todd Pollak, program manager for GPI, said that the reduction in carbon emissions is very encouraging and noted that improved environmental policies of publishers, printers, and paper manufacturers have also saved more than five million trees annually, which in turn helps to improve the habitats in environmentally sensitive areas of the world. Still, Pollak said, there is more that can be done. As the study noted, while more publishers reported that they have environmental policies in place (82% in 2010 vs. 59% in 2006), the percentage of publishers that actually have targets for increasing their use of recycled paper fell from 54% to 52% in 2010. The establishment of targets, Pollak explained, is an important factor in making publishers implement policies that will increase their use of recycled paper, as well as to introduce other green programs.

The BIEC itself has undergone a number of significant changes since it was founded, including revamping its bylaws and implementing a dues structure. Along the way, the number of publishers participating in the organization has declined, but Pollak said BIEC is preparing to do more outreach to try to win publishers back. Priorities for BIEC remain tracking the improvement the industry makes in reducing its environmental impact, and the council is currently concluding a new round of surveys to assess additional environmental progress since 2010. (The 2010 update was based on responses from 57 companies.)

Since the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 20% by 2020 has already been reached, Pollak said that at the September BIEC meeting he hopes to discuss implementing an interim goal ahead of the BIEC’s ultimate target of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. Another initiative to gain support is reducing the number of books that end up in landfills. To that end, BIEC is working with “end users”—such as school districts and library system—that are looking to dispose of old books. BIEC plans to match those organizations with recycling and de-inking companies. BIEC is not working with publishers on the effort since Pollak noted that many houses already have their own projects to cut down on book returns. Pollak also said BIEC has established a working committee to start looking into the impact of e-reading devices on the environment.

Pollak said he is hopeful that the progress BIEC has made to date will encourage more stakeholders within the industry to work with BIEC to meet the environmental challenges that remain.

Environmental Progress Reported by Paper Manufacturers

Environmental Metric 2006 2010 % Change
Total Paper Consumption 1,763,698 tons 1,159,000 tons 34%
Average Recycled Content* 5% 24% 380%
Percentage of FSC Certified Paper <5% 16% >320%
Industry Greenhouse Gas Emissions** 12,400,000 metric tons 9,009,190 metric tons -27%

*Estimate based on average for printing and writing sector

**Scope 1 and 2 Emissions, Inclusive of forest carbon loss Source: Book Industry Environmental Trends