Prehistoric Publishing Practice Prevents Plucky Planet

This post is all about pulping, printing and publishing. It came to my attention that publishers have an unusual and incredibly wasteful practice that they call sale-or-return. It all started in the 1930s when a faultering New York publisher, Simon & Schuster, created a selling gimic whereby they would buy back any unsold books from bookstores. This meant that bookstores would incur less risk from buying books from that publisher because if they didn’t sell them to customers, they still make their money back. This deplorable practice soon became so popular that now, 80 years later, it is the modus operandi of publishers across the globe.

Ok, so you might be thinking “what’s the big deal? It makes perfect sense.” The problem is that 65-95% of the books which are returned to publishers are destroyed by pulping so that the value of those books still in the market are not devalued by an influx of free or cheaper copies. I Initially thought, from an environmental perpspective, that as long as these pulped books are recycled, then that’s ok. That was until I read that printing is estimated to be the UK’s 4th most polluting industry. It is mind boggling that in such a polluting industry, between 30-40% of books never get read and are being returned to publishers just to be pulped. That means that upto 40% of the initial damage to the environment caused by printing is of absolutely no benefit to anyone, the publishers themselves lose millions of pounds a year from returns. And that’s even before we consider that the returned books have to be transported back to warehouses and pulp mills from the book stores, considerably increasing the carbon footprint of each book (which would already be at around 3Kg of CO2 per book). Then, if the paper is recycled, the deinking process leaches heavy metals and other nasties like dioxins into water systems as the paper is cleaned ready for reuse.

Now I must quickly point out that I am not dissing paper recycling at all and any damage it does cause to the environment must be seen as collateral to the prevented deforestation that results. In any case, the process of creating recycled paper produces 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution than is created when producing ‘virgin’ paper. What I am getting angry about is the wasteful practice of overprinting and then destroying the books that don’t get sold. Finding a solution to this problem rests largely on the shoulders of publishers to reduce the amount of waste they create in the first place and to more carefully predict how many copies each publication will sell and respond to demand from book shops. There is, however, something that you can do if you want to reduce the environmental impact of printing and pulping; you can start reading second-hand books.  By doing this, you can get more use out of the resources that went into making each book and through reduced demand for new books, decrease the impact that printing has on the environment.

Since July 2010, Healthy Planet has saved 30 tons of books of unwanted books from being pulped or thrown in to landfill, and we’ve given them all away for free! Visit to find a books for free store near you and send a message to publishers that an unsold book doesn’t mean an unwanted book.


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