the future of the sustainable book 01.02.2008, 10:59 PM
posted by kim white
On New Year's Eve, I got lost in Yonkers trying to take my son's gently-used toys to the Salvation Army. The Yonkers store was the only one I could find willing to take them. The guy on the phone hesitated, "Are they in good condition?" he asked, clearly unhappy about my impending donation. I assured him they were, and he sighed and told me to come on over.
On principle, I try (really hard) to give away anything that is not completely worn out. But it is getting harder and harder to do. Nobody wants my old furniture or clothes or books. And they especially don't want used children's toys. My attempt to give them away was ill-fated. A police barricade stopped me at Nepperhan Avenue (a construction site disaster). Then I drove around for forty minutes until I found an alternate route but was twarted at Ashburton Ave (building on fire, streets blocked). I gave up and went home. With stomach full of guilt, I put the plastic toys in the dumpster. My son didn't mind because he had a brand new pile of toys in his playroom, Christmas gifts from relatives and friends who couldn't be dissuaded.
Point is, it seems increasingly difficult to opt out of the cycle of waste-creation. Plastic kids' toys are just one example. I'm also guilty of consuming and transforming lots of other things into waste: clothes, computers, cell phones, magazines, all sorts of complicatedly-packaged food and beverage items, etc... So yesterday, when I contemplated how best to spend 2008, I decided to focus on figuring out how to create a more sustainable lifestyle. And since I work in book publishing, job one is to figure out what it means to create a sustainable book. Lots of models come to mind. Good ones like Wikipedia (device-neutral and always in the latest, free, edition) and bad ones like the Kindle, (which tries to create a market for an ebook reader with designed obsolescence).
Anyway, I thought it might be useful to weave the sustainability discussion into if:book's ongoing consideration of networked ebooks, because at this stage in their developement, networked books could be shaped with sustainability in mind. So, I'm hoping to stir up some interesting discussion and serious contemplation of the perfectly sustainable book: one that is constantly revised, but never needs to be reprinted (or repurchased); one that is lean and simple and doesn't require a small server farm or a special device; one that makes an enormous impact, but leaves a teeny tiny carbon footprint; one we can live with for ever and ever without getting bored or satiated.
Diane on January 3, 2008 8:56 AM:
My daughter's art teacher shapes her curriculum around the remida principle of constructive, creative reuse -- which is another alternative to recycling and/or giving away.
It seems like if an object encourages playfulness in its "user," it's easier to repurpose. For instance, my friend Gina makes amazing mechanical sculptures from found objects, including electronics.
Oh - and one other blue-sky desideratum: that all our "stuff" should be landfill-safe, meaning if it does somehow wind up in the dump -- and let's face it, when we give things away, that's often what happens eventually -- it doesn't leach harmful things into the soil, air or water.
Ben on January 3, 2008 2:26 PM:
Here in Syracuse, there is a SUNY campus for Environmental Science and Forestry. One of the programs is paper science, and I have heard that students are taught that for every tree processed for paper, three are to replace it. This may not happen in practice, but it's a good, sustainable model...for trees. It calls to my mind the question of how sustainable and carbon-friendly electronic solutions really are. Networked ebooks save paper, but the resources needed to power these devices worldwide is immense. Is it possible that print books are friendlier to the environment? A recent National Geographic article discussed the mountains of electronic waste being produced.
Clancy on January 3, 2008 3:41 PM:
That's too bad. You'd think those plastic toys would be recyclable, at least some of them. When my son is born, I'll look for the recycle symbols on toys to see if I ever see any.
Sam Wilson on January 3, 2008 5:01 PM:
I take it that the "perfectly sustainable book" that you have in mind would be an electronic device? But what about the idea that paper books already are perfectly sustainable? Yes, they consume trees in their production, but that may well be preferable to an on-going need for oil (to keep a thing running, I mean). And anyway, how about touting libraries as a sink for carbon sequestration?!
Huzza for the future of the book!
VR Cline on January 3, 2008 7:36 PM:
Early printed books hold together very well. How about using recycled materials (light colored rags) to create paper? This very old model worked well, and could work again in specialized purposes.
It is old news that 400 year old books that sit on library shelves are generally in much better shape than 100 year old acidic books.
I have heard that the book artist Walter Hamady's books often contained the jeans and t-shirts of friends that came by, donated their no longer needed clothes (to be turned into pulp and then paper), and then these same friends would then help him set type and operate the press.
Obviously, this isn't going to provide the paper for the next mass market sensation, but it could serve as the basis for some other model for books that people would like to keep around for awhile. (Handmade papermaking also does not produce the filth of industrial paper mills - though it still requires a lot of water.)
Perhaps, like carbon credits, people could monitor their recycling of paper products and natural fibers to gage the amount of paper created. (Energy and water use, of course, would need to be thought about as well.)
Figuring this sort of thing would help better visualize and quantify the eco-costs of paper and seemingly disposable mass market books and print-outs.
kim white on January 3, 2008 10:55 PM:
I love your thoughts about handmade papers and cast-offs to make art. Bravo to that. I should have thought about taking my toys to the recycling center, what a great idea. It would be a good lesson and fun for my son to see things ground up to make new things. Next time!
My sustainable book thinking is more about mass consumption of book-worthy information. How to make things like newspapers, bestsellers, and textbooks less damaging to the environment. In spite of the energy they use and the waste they create, my hunch is that electronic books come out better in the end. Someone could probably do the math on this, what is the environmental impact of the paper version of the New York Times Sunday Edition vs. the electronic version? The paper paper requires trees, inks, fossil-fuel powered presses, and fossil fuel-powered trucks to deliver it to your home or local market. It also requires fossil-fuel powered garbage trucks to haul it away after you've read it. the electronic paper requires fossil-fuel powered computers and servers, but that's it. Most of the computers would be there whether the user read the NY Times on them or not.
Lynne Dixon on January 4, 2008 9:54 PM:
Freecycle tries to take care of the gently-used toys dilemma (amongst other stuff).
Edward Knuckles on January 5, 2008 7:57 AM:
If you figure that eighty percent of what is published is garbbage, then publish the twenty percent of what is worth treassuring in our libraries on paper and publish the rest electronically so that it will eventually evaporate into a sea of ever increasing entropy.
C C Pugh on January 7, 2008 6:04 AM:
I think the most important thing about the sustainable book is that it should be a form that applies to all printed matter, Knuckles. The point must surely be to find a way to sustain both the physical environment the book is produced from and the data the book consists of; who knows how much valuable literature has been lost because of editorial prejudices and exclusionary collections policies.
Terry Heffernan on May 16, 2008 3:20 PM:
Here in the UK, local councils have introduced waste disposal schemes where we can send all kinds of waste, e.g. plastic bottles, metal cans, glass, paper, cardboard, some garden waste etc.
However, there are certain restrictions, e.g. plastic bottles, but not the caps. Glass, but only bottles/jars (without caps) - all metal cans must be washed, this seems rediculous, as washing the cans involves wasting water, and in some cases, hot water. Seems counter-productive to me. Food waste is not recyclable for most councils, although some do accept it, but special recepticals are needed.
Bottom line, here in the UK, the recycling effort by local authorities appears to be a 'half-hearted' effort. They should be recycling all waste, but the landfills are still being used and are close to bursting point - this has other environmental recpercussions. This is a small country and it won't be long before landfills will run out of space.
That said, unless we, as individuals, learn to waste less, or, even better, waste nothing, this planet will run out of resources and then where will we be?