At BookFinder.com, we try to be conscious of our environmental impact, and are keen to find ways we can lower our carbon footprint. Cutting down on airplane use, using public transit, and keeping homes at a more moderate temperature are the big ticket items that receive the most press. However, our carbon impact grows from all our activities, even buying books, so we wanted to work out about how much CO2 was emitted from buying used books online.
To find the carbon footprint of a typical new book we had to look no further than a study by the Green Press Initiative, which found that the entire US book industry emits 8.85 pounds of CO2 per book, through all its production steps, retail, and publishing activities.
When it comes to shipping a used book purchased on the Internet, we had to make a couple small assumptions. Because BookFinder.com allows you to buy from any bookseller in the world, working out the average distance traveled can be a bit tough. The average BookFinder.com order ships domestically within the U.S.; we ran some quick calculations, and worked out that San Francisco to Chicago (by road, 2,132 miles, 3,431 km) was a good, conservative, estimate for the average distance a book will travel.
We break down the carbon impact into several stages: the seller's acquiring a book, the book being held for sale at a retailer, and the book being shipped and delivered. Because most books are bought locally, and stored in bulk, the first two stages are negligible, less than 0.005 pounds of CO2 per book for an average American bookseller. We don't have hard data for the impacts of delivering a package from a post office to home, but all our guesses place it at under 0.05 pounds per package.
Transportation's the killer. A typical used book purchase from San Francisco to Chicago would be shipped via media mail, which would be ground-based. We used a variety of strategies to try to estimate the transport-related impact. In the end, we decided to be conservative, and reuse Pablo Paster and Tyler Colman's analysis of the carbon impact of wine transport in the May 2009 issue of National Geographic (as reported in Treehugger). Assuming 1.9 books per bottle of wine, we can assume that the transit-related emissions for the used book in our example are under 1.7 lbs of CO2.
Put together, we have a total of about 1.7 lbs of CO2 per used book purchased online in our example, 8.85 lbs for the typical new book as reported by the Green Press Initiative, meaning you'd save over 7 lbs of CO2 buying that book used via BookFinder.com.
You can't always buy a used book; someone has to buy it new and if you want to read that David Sedaris book when it comes out, used might not be an option. I should also note that the greenest option is still to take the bus down to your local used bookstore thus saving the shipping CO2 as well saving the total 8.85 lbs, but if you can't find it locally used buying used online is still a better bet.
Consider the planet, and read a used book!