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Green publishing: turning over a new leaf

Free Spirit founder Judy Galbreith says that as a publisher whose work centers on children, Free Spirit is under more pressure to do right by the next generation in terms of both the materials it creates and the way they are created.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Free Spirit founder Judy Galbraith says that as a publisher whose work centers on children, Free Spirit is under more pressure to do right by the next generation in terms of both the materials it creates and the way they are created.

Nearly all of life's indulgences — big, shiny cars, global travel, chocolate, meat, and fresh fruit in January — have an equal and opposite reaction upon the health of the planet. What about books? How can sitting under a tree on a sunny afternoon with a book propped on your knee be anything but good? Oh, wait a minute: Look up. Look down. See the connection?


According to the Green Press Initiative, 30 million trees are used to make books to be sold in the United States every year, and sources include endangered, ecologically sensitive and old-growth forests. The carbon footprint of a single book is 8.85 pounds, and the book publishing industry as a whole emits a net 12.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide every year, taking into account all steps of the production cycle, from tree harvesting to incinerating that paperback you left out in the rain.

Beyond the immediate costs, the loss of those mature trees, whose C02 consumption counteracts the impacts of pollution, has a continued negative impact on the health and quality of life for people around the world.

Aren't you glad you're reading this online?

While exerting their own impact in the form of energy use, the paperless office, the paperless book (e-books and Amazon's Kindle) and the paperless newspaper (ahem, MinnPost) do reduce tree consumption. But let's face it, most book lovers still like something to have and to hold. And it's really hard to read a screen when you're sitting outside, even in the shade.

So the next step is changing the way book publishers do business, and a number of Twin Cities printers and publishers are doing just that. By using recycled paper, print-on-demand technologies, controlling waste and increasing online components, these forward-looking word merchants help conserve paper resources.

Harry Potter and the vanishing forest
Ironically, the book that has consumed more trees in recent history than any other has helped push changes in the publishing industry. On the urging of author J.K. Rowling, Scholastic printed 65 percent of the U.S. first edition of the final Harry Potter book on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper, meaning it was harvested from responsibly managed forests, and included at least 30 percent post-consumer recycled paper.

The impact was significant: These moves saved 200,000 trees and had the same carbon impact as taking 1,577 cars off the road. Furthermore, printers across the country began stocking more recycled and FSC-certified paper to meet the demand.

It could have been better, though: The print runs in the United Kingdom and Canada were 100 percent recycled. (Forty-five Canadian authors, including Phillip Pullman and Margaret Atwood, have also requested recycled paper for their books via Greenpeace's book campaign. Bestselling authors may be able to make such requests, but the majority of paper decisions are made by the publisher.

Dave Hinman, a sales representative with St. Cloud-based Sentinel Printing, says the Potter publicity led several of his customers to request eco-friendly paper for their publications. The printer already stocked eco-friendly papers, while many other printers only special-order them.

"Nineteen of our 'house' paper stocks are FSC-certified, many of our customers are using paper with recycled contents of 10- to 100 percent, and we use a lot of ground wood paper, which is not recycled but uses less wood and energy to produce than a standard offset wood," he says. "Also, our inks are plant-based."

Despite these efforts, Sentinel has been on a waiting list for more than six months to become an official FSC-certified printer; the organization moves slowly, especially with printers outside of major cities.

Shelling out more green to be green
Free Spirit Publishing, a Minneapolis publisher of children's and educational books, is a member of the Green Press Initiative and publishes its books on a minimum of 30 percent post-consumer waste whenever possible.

"That was a big commitment, because it does require more thought and planning, and it's more expensive to use recycled stocks," says Free Spirit founder Judy Galbraith. "But even before we joined, our company was very committed to sustainability. We used recycled paper in the office, we recycle desk paper, recycle in our lunchroom — it's just part of who we are as a company. We are always looking for ways to improve, such as moving more materials online. I'm a concerned publisher, and many of our customers are concerned about these issues as well."

As a publisher whose work centers on children, Free Spirit is under more pressure to do right by the next generation in terms of both the materials it creates and the way they are created, Galbraith says.

Milkweed Editions, another Minneapolis small press, feels the same mandate. Milkweed's catalog is populated by heavyweights of the nature-writing world, including Bill McKibben, Edward Abbey, Rick Bass, Paul Gruchow and Sandra Steingraber. Milkweed even has a special imprint, The World as Home, for titles focused on the nature topics. So the publisher sets a standard, naturally.

"We recently published 'The Future of Nature,' an anthology of the best essays from the past 15 years of Orion magazine. Of course it would have been ridiculous not to have printed that on recycled paper. In fact, it may have been specified in the contract," says managing editor James Cihlar, who notes that almost all of Milkweed's books are printed on 100 percent post-consumer-waste recycled paper.

"We are always making decisions based on what the most Earth-friendly thing to do will be. We are very interested in print-on-demand [in which books aren't printed until they are requested by a reader] for our backlist, and found a vendor, Bookmobile, that offers this on recycled paper. We're very interested in digital opportunities, such as Amazon's Kindle, and we're always making our website more interactive. Even in the daily direct mail, we use recycled paper and try to minimize the amount of paper we use. Some publishers are moving to an online-only catalog."

Big publishers like Scholastic bend the marketplace to their whims (the Harry Potter order led to the creation of six new lines of eco-paper for the 12-million-copy run), but small publishers like Milkweed often must spend more money to be green, or at least more time tracking down Earth-friendly options.

For a recent photo-driven book, Seth Kantner's "Shopping for Porcupine," Cihlar searched far and wide for a printer — and found one — that could print four-color photos on recycled-content paper at a competitive price, in a geographically acceptable location; most four-color, coffee-table quality books are printed overseas, entailing often eco-unfriendly international shipping.

"Our commitment to sustainability does limit the vendors I could use, so I'm pleased to see more printers moving towards FSC certification and stocking recycled paper," says Cihlar.

In fact, the Green Press Initiative reports that 160 publishers (or about 40 percent of the industry) are making changes or commitments to decrease their impact on the environment in some way. Also, as more publishers and printers make these changes, costs are coming down: 30 percent recycled paper now costs approximately the same as 100 percent virgin paper, although industry estimates suggest it costs 3 percent more to print a book on recycled paper.

Improving outlook for trees
But why pick on books? The magazine industry consumes slightly more trees, at 35 million a year, and newspapers gobbled up 95 million trees last year — although, with declining circulations and thinner editions, the outlook for the trees is looking better. The Star Tribune uses 40 percent recycled paper, and the Pioneer Press uses 25 percent, according to the Recycling Association of Minnesota.

Magazines are worse: The New York Times magazine's recent "green" issue wasn't printed on recycled paper, and vast print overruns for newsstand magazines are standard practice. Retailers simply trash the leftovers when the next issue arrives.

The Minneapolis-based Utne Reader magazine is now printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, as are several of the other green topics publications owned by Ogden Publications, including Mother Earth News and Natural Home.

"We would have no credibility covering the topics we do if we didn't make this commitment," says Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director at Ogden. Welch believes that Ogden is the largest consumer of recycled magazine paper in the country. "And quite simply, we believe it's the right thing to do." 

Magazines and newspapers are usually read by only one person, while books — especially library books — can have a longer life and more users. But the book business is still incredibly wasteful; each year, millions of unsold books are trucked back to publishers to be pulped or "landfilled." Print overruns may exceed sales by more than 50 percent. If a mass-market paperback doesn't perform quickly, it doesn't even get returned for remainders (resold elsewhere at lower prices); the cover is torn off to prevent anyone from reselling it and it's trashed.

Although the retail cost of a new book can be substantial, a quick browse of the aftermarket on Amazon shows that most used books can be bought for less than it costs to ship them to you, which doesn't exactly encourage people to treat them as valuable items made from precious resources. And that's talking bestsellers, not even, say, Reader's Digest condensed editions, of which there are plenty. Half-Price Books, which buys and sells used books, turns away many more books than they buy, and spends thousands of dollars every year to recycle the books they can't sell, says one local manager.

Despite all this, books are still one indulgence that feels necessary. We need books — especially the good ones.

Amy Goetzman, a freelance writer and editor who has covered the arts for the Rake, City Pages, Star Tribune and Minnesota Monthly, covers books, libraries and the Twin Cities literary scene. She can be reached at agoetzman [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

I'm so pleased that the Minnesota Post is continuing to research developments in the printing business. My own guess is that books are going to become increasingly valued for their sculptural (three dimensional, tactile) qualities and that publishers continuing to use paper will not only be careful about the carbon footprint of their publications but will also be careful about the aesthetic appeal of their product. A return to a standard of beauty to match medieval illuminated books and attention to details such as intricate cover design (including features from the 16th and 17th centuries like cover fasteners) will add to the artistic value of printed materials in the literal sense. Books will become more the conveyors of an aesthetic experience than the conveyors of information. I personally cannot foresee my own relinquishing of the pleasure of smell, look, and texture of a well-made book.