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Published on May 28th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


Green Your Reading Experience

The act of reading is essential to the modern world, not only for pleasure, but for growth and development. Everyone has a book that has changed their life, and the knowledge, self-insight, and emotion we can glean from reading is perhaps one of the most creative and compelling characteristics of the human experience.

Although the written word is vital to self-reflection and education in our thriving, consuming, and increasingly conscientious world, the act of reading isn’t always a “green” experience. From the ink used in printing to the fibers used to make paper to the jet fuel used to ship books across the world, the act of reading is intricately woven into the fabric of our lifestyle and the lifeline of our planet…

Reading Materials

If you aren’t quite ready to give up your New York Times crossword, or donate your copy of The Omnivores Dilemma, it’s okay—there are several ways to green your reading lifestyle and reduce your literary carbon footprint. It all starts with knowledge—how book are made, what goes into them, and what steps you can take.

Virtually every magazine, book, or newspaper has its own website, often with more information, photos, links, and interactive possibility than the actual publication. There are many green advantages to saying goodbye to your daily or monthly subscriptions and opting for the e-route instead…

Pulp to Print


Knowing what type of ink used on what you can read is an important step towards an eco-friendly reading lifestyle because most of what we read is recycled. All of the ink, filler, and coatings of a magazine or newspaper must be removed for recycling. Once the ink is removed, it’s called de-inked consumer waste.

Soy-based Ink: Most ink used in the publishing industry was made from petroleum, but during the 1970’s farmers started looking for alternatives to oil-based environmentally hazardous inks. The main alternative used on nearly one-third of America’s newspapers is soy-based ink, which is made from soybeans.

  • It’s more environmentally friendly than petroleum-based ink, makes it easier to recycle paper, and improves the lifespan of printers.
  • Soy ink also has low levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which helps to reduce air pollution by minimizing toxic emissions.
  • It’s also cost effective, and has brighter, more durable color options.

Corn-based Ink: Newly discovered corn-based ink, made with an ethyl lactate finish is also a suitable substitute for petroleum-based ink, and has the same eco-friendly benefits of soy-based ink.

The best way to find out if your favorite publication uses earth-friendly printing and ink practices is to contact them directly.


Paper is made from wood pulp, which is mechanically or chemically separated wood fibers. Wood pulp comes from softwood trees, such as pine, fir, larch, hemlock, spruce or hardwood trees: eucalyptus, aspen, and birch. The two main technologies for turning wood pulp into paper are the Kraft and Sulfite processes.

The Kraft process uses several chemical steps to create paper, and is the more popular method for turning wood pulp into paper because it yields a stronger product. However, the Kraft process creates several chemical byproducts: hydrogen sulfide (produces the smell of rotten eggs), methyl mercaptan (smells like rotten cabbage), dimethyl sulfide, dimethyl disulfide, and sulfur. Chemical mills like Kraft mills are a relatively closed cycles, running on all their own energy.

The Sulfite process creates more usable byproducts than the Kraft process, and is less destructive. The main byproducts of the sulfite method are called lignosulfonates, which can be used in tanning leather, making concrete, drywall, and drilling mud.

Scientists are currently conducting research about biological pulping to make paper—using fungi to break down the lignin but not the cellulose of the cells in the wood. This method would significantly cut back on pollution associated with chemical pulping.

Reading Book

Paper Meets It’s End

So what happens to your reading materials when you’re finished reading and ready to recycle?

Once you recycle your newspaper, it is broken down into pulp again either mechanically or chemically. It’s reduced down into fibers by adding water and some serious mechanical separation. Once it’s in a fibrous state, recycled paper is generally classified in one of three ways:

  • Mill Broke or Internal Mill Waste is paper that consumers never see because it is substandard paper that is recycled by the paper mill. It is essentially waste that is recycled by the papers mills long before it would ever reach a consumer.
  • Pre-consumer Waste is waste produce by publishers and printers: unsold publications, trims, and other recycled materials that did not reach its intended use.
  • Post-consumer Waste is fiber from paper that has been used for its intended purpose and includes office waste, magazine papers, and newsprint. As the vast majority of this paper has been printed, it will either be recycled as printed paper or go through a de-inking process first.

Now that you know the origin of your papers, books, and magazines, and the cycle of their production, here are some alternatives to eliminate the use and waste of trees…

The Eco Route—E-reading

Virtually every magazine, book, or newspaper has its own website, often with more information, photos, links, and interactive possibility than the actual publication. There are many green advantages to saying goodbye to your daily or monthly subscriptions and opting for the e-route instead:

  • In signing up for an RSS feed, you can have the newest info, blog updates, and breaking news delivered straight to your inbox.
  • By eliminating the subscription, you eliminate the waste.
  • Free stuff! Websites often have extra recipes, archived editions, photos, links, and tips not featured in hard copy.


Ebookstores offer you plenty of e-resources to fill the book-void. You don’t need any special device like an Ereader to read an e-book or digital book (their main attraction is portability)—a PDA or computer will do as well. Ebookstores offer the same product as a regular book store, only in electronic versions.

Ebookstores also allow you to browse, pick your choice format, and download your digital book on the spot. Check out the following e-book sites:

  • EcoBrain (catalog includes special focus on environmentalism and green living titles)
  • Amazon’s Kindle Store (for users of Amazon’s Kindle Ereader)
  • Palm’s eBook Store for Palm Pilots
  • Sony’s site provides free software downloads for their eBook Store
  • Realtime Publishers (specializing in computer/IT ebooks that are free to registered readers)

E-book Readers

One of the newest trends in waste-free reading is readers. An Ereader is a portable electronic device that allows you to download your favorite books and magazines in digital form from an elibrary. They present a book-quality image on a backlit screen, in a hand held device the size of paperback.

Many companies will give you a number of free downloads with the purchase of their brand. Ereaders are a great for travel and they present an environmentally friendly way to stay informed or simply read the classics. They travel and charge easily, and free up shelf space at home.

The newest generation of Ereaders has just hit the market, and while the technology is improving, reviews are varied on the overall quality. They all generally support PDF, RDF, and text formats, as well as MP3 and AAC audio files. Ereaders allow you to carry reading material as well as personal documents and music while eliminating the need for a laptop.

Amazon’s Kindle marks the high end of the price range, though many other companies offer Ereaders like the Sony Portable Reader System. While generally better received than a PDA (including brightness, loading speed, and battery life), main complaints include connection problems with the website, a dim backlight, and typos on the pages.

What if you just can’t say goodbye to all of your favorite paper reads? Visit Sign Up for the Sustainable Reading Movement for a few tips about converting paper consumption into eco-worthy habits.

The Future of Reading

When considering a green reading lifestyle, it’s not how we will do it, but a matter of when it will be necessary. While books have become our friends throughout the ages, in the face of an increasing population with increasing consumption demands, the realities of our affair with books must be acknowledged. While the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, we consume approximately 30% of its resources and create 30% of its waste!

Our cycle of consumption has left us with less than 4% of our original forests remaining—a fact that is frightening but is also a part of our future. Going green with your reading habits entails a choice based on awareness, and with that comes the responsibility of knowledge about how our reading choices will affect our tomorrow.

Get the Green Living Ideas book in softcover or PDF for as low as $2.99!

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