Replacing Text Books

B y S i n g u l a r N e w m a n

This article will try to deal, with the research and development, of a more sustainable infrastructure, develop a plan or at least put forth a broad statement, highlighting what I see as a problem area and an area that could be vastly improved in today’s society, a plan that deals with the sustainability of limited planetary resources. This paper will provide some clues into an actual case-study. I am researching a higher education institution located in Portland Oregon, a school named Portland State University, my old Alma matter.

Since I am not very qualified to recommend many other sustainable solutions, I’ll attempt to discuss a matter with which I am very familiar. The problem with which I am most familiar is that of paper usage, adding together all my schooling years, I am a virtual expert on paper usage; I have used paper products since kinder garden. All together that’s close to 16 years of full-time experience!

By paper usage, I intend to cover the broad spectrum of paper usage at a modern American University. My entire life I've been surrounded by paper mountains, papers on the floor, paper’s on the desk, paper’s in my backpack and papers in my pockets. Paper everywhere, and that’s great, don’t get me wrong, I love paper. Ever since I discovered at around two that I could use a pencil to mark papers, I was hooked, instantly!

While I love paper, I hate to see it wasted. And speaking truthfully, 90% of the paper used in school is a waste of paper, it all ends up in the trash, or more recently the recycling bin. We all know that resources are increasingly limited upon this world we call home, therefore while looking around me, as the motto declares, “think globally, act locally” I saw the insane waste of paper unfolding everywhere, as if paper was free, or it grew on trees, no pun intended. Well as it turns out, it does grow on trees. Trees that take several decades before they can be processed successfully into the pure white substance we call paper. However, according to a paper industry think tank, and we should really take this with a grain of salt, today’s paper comes mostly from lumber industry by products, such as shavings and cuttings, and less than 25% of the paper produced in the United States contains 100% tree matter.

It is important to point out as well, that in reality, you really cannot cut 25% of a tree and expect it to survive. So basically 25% of our paper comes directly from trees. Trees that would otherwise make pretty architectural doors, trees that would otherwise provide us, with fresh air. And you know what, not that I am a tree huger or anything, even dough I really enjoy trees, and I see the absence of vegetation in an urban dwelling, as the direct co efficient of inhabitants IQ scores and the less trees per person, the more aggressive and dense the population seems to become. So I am all for saving even one tree out there.

Trees provide, while paper subtracts towards the Eco system. Wastefulness is unnecessary and destructive. Trees are life machines; they provide air for us and recycle carbon monoxide. The main problem with the paper industry, as many environmentally conscious experts in the field of sustainability would agree, is the waste water produced by the paper mills, water that is loaded with poisonous, environmentally hazardous chemicals like, nitro oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates and other noxious atmospheric polluters. If that wasn't bad enough the paper mills require the paper pulp mixture to be brought to a boil, basically if you think about it, every piece of paper used on the campus of Portland State University, was at one point a boiling soup of noxious chemicals.

It is hard to estimate the many billions of kilowatt hours required to bring 150,000 tons of paper to a boiling soup. That’s the incredible amount this medium sized university digests each and every year, paper that in my opinion is really useless and most definitely wasted in today’s high tech world.

Conducting a quick research, I arrived at the root of the problem. Just like every major historically significant event, the root was buried deep inside the books. In this case, conducting a quick survey of the Portland State University campus, it becomes quickly apparent that books represent the vast majority of the paper usage. No other paper practices, from personal hygiene to copier paper to, super annoying hall fliers comes close to the amount of paper contained in these rather large and numerous objects, loaded with ink and chemicals. I suspected this much, because it makes logical sense. Books hold the most paper by and large. Next I scheduled an interview with a senior staff person at the Portland State, Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Sustainability Center. It turns out they too were concerned about paper usage, and have taken baby steps to address the problem. They have actually put together a well written and documented report on the copy paper usage at Portland State. I congratulate them for their effort, I am sure it isn't easy to dig through numbers and files and add and subtract minute details and such. I was however very surprised that, within this extensive report, the mandatory school text books, were not even considered.

Perhaps the report was prioritizing its sights on the copy paper usage because President Obama 1), has passed an executive order which outlines that any and all institutions that get federal funding, are hereby required to use 25% post consumer recycled paper content. Books didn't make the list because I suppose, they fall under the responsibility of the student body, that however is a mistaken assumption. Students don’t have any say or choices in what book they read or purchase. 100% of the time at they have no choice but to purchase these school text books at exorbitant, ridiculous prices that are reminiscent of a mafia shakedown. How these publishers can shamelessly profit off young and starving students is beyond me. It seems you would want to help and encourage your best and brightest to become educated, not take advantage of them and scalp them on book prices. These school book publishers are pirates with PhD’s running a criminal enterprise. Unfortunately, these book publishers see themselves as stand up citizens and pillars of our society.

The vast majority of these books end up resold or recycled, and before you tell me, recycling is great, let me quickly bring up the point that recycling takes just as much if not more energy as making a whole new book. The major problem arises when a book that contains 25% recycled fibers gets recycled again. Once you recycle it, it is the end of the run because the paper fibers become too short to be recycled a third time and then its landfill time. Basically Portland State University goes through roughly 200 thousand books in a year. Calculating the average PSU student will purchase at least one book for his or her class, the average credit load being twelve, this would translate to the average of 30 lbs paper load, per student, per quarter.

Yearly calculations would amount to an average of 100 lbs of paper for the average student. Multiplying the 30,000 students by 100 lbs gives us around 300 million lbs of paper. That translates to 150,000 tons of paper! To get an idea what that number amounts to, I did the calculations for you, the environmental damage really starts to paint a bleak picture. Making things worse, these massive environmental polluters don’t magically get on a starship and leave for Andromeda at warp 8, they settle in for the long haul, becoming absorbed into ground, water, air and vegetation all around us, basically becoming part of the Eco system, poisonous chemicals and all. Is it any wonder why at current pace one in three Americans will have cancer by 2030!

Every year PSU produces, or helps facilitate the razing of over 2,222,450 trees, helps to release 336,734 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, slurps down 37,755,102 gallons of fuel, ( um-mm, exactly how many flex cars and bicycles would that necessitate to offset? Perhaps we need to put bike lanes on the freeways and plant trees on top of houses?) which in today’s prices would amount to over 113,265,306 million dollars, burned in vain basically, and the most notorious statistic, the waste water generated, and I hope my calculator will be able to crunch these numbers, the waste water produced comes to a total of 2.6 billion gallons. The preceding number is in the little understood quantity of billions by the way. A billion is 999 million plus one.

Ok, I am quickly running out of negatives to books here, so here goes my proposed solution, as idealized as possible. I propose PSU save face and switch its books out for digital tablets, much like South Korea has done. The reader is by now familiar with this tech, these products being currently sold faster than bottled water. The rise of the digital age has made possible, the comfortable digestion of books in a digital format, you could even change the font and size if you wish, moreover, these tablet allow the users to get on the internet and also watch videos, making them great educational assets, much more so than a static book. With one quick one stroke you have replaced the laptop and the book with a slimmer, cheaper, more efficient medium.

From a mile away it seems painfully obvious that if Portland State University switched to iPads or tablets only, its contribution to the environment would be tremendous. It would become an overnight green leader, earning a top spot at the planetary stewardship round-table so to speak. However, let have a closer look at the pros and cons of computer tablets versus good old fashion printed books.

The major components of the I-pad are highly sophisticated and expensive to make, necessitating billion dollar high tech facilities to manufacture. They are pretty much built by robots and require expensive to procure minerals, again necessitating much heat and energy to process and implement. However, according to Steve Jobs the I-Pad id free of the device is free of all kinds of nasty chemicals. It is arsenic-free, mercury-free, BFR-free, PVC-free, and, according to, “highly recyclable.”

However, according to other sources like New York Times, and just keep in mind that this paper has really lost its audience with the crap it’s been printing lately, according an article on the website, an E-reader, interestingly enough they do not make specific claims and never refer to the I-Pad, according to this article, and I find it hard to believe since their estimates have a 300% range, hardly anything would be print worthy with a conclusion ranging 300%, but let’s keep an open eye, according to this article, an E-reader has within itself the equivalent of between 40 to 100 books. What books these are, what size, color or black and white, what format, page count, these key points are obviously left to the imagination, nobody knows. The article further goes on to draw the conclusion that given it’s precious metal hunger and energy consumption, the E-reader constitutes a bigger negative impact on the environment. Another article had the opposite to say and I quote: “ The Cleantech study 2) concluded that purchasing three e-books per month for four years produces roughly 168 kilograms of CO2 throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle, compared to the estimated 1,074 kilograms of CO2 produced by the same number of printed books”.

However, given the service life of an I-Pad compared to a book, more often than not, the devices being used for at least two three generation of students, the environmental impact is offset and the I- Pad comes up on top. Basically an E-reader can replace, all the books you’ll buy for the next 5 years or so. Given this span of time, an E-reader becomes a viable alternative to a book. Not winning out by a mile versus the book, and some will still debate me on this, but in my opinion the technology is a step forward.

Looking much farther forward, to a day when man uses, environmentally clean technology and a simple looking thin sheet of glass, will be Nano-technologically imprinted with organic bacteria, that glow under your fingertips creating graphics and text, all powered by the heat of your palms. Some would call me a technocrat; I simply see high technology and innovation, as being the trademark of a highly creative society. May the future treat us kindly, and much more importantly, may we treat each other with love and together we can make better schools and better books and a place of learning that is productive and sustainable.

References Portland State University, Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Sustainability Center


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