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Eco-Publishing: Sustainable Books

Sustainability and ecological awareness is one of the main challenges facing the publishing industry and one of the pillars of the project “Spain, Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2022”. Eco-publishing was born out of this need: a new model of sustainable management of the entire publishing process that brings added value to the publishing industry and to society.

The aim is to incorporate environmental and social criteria into the publishing process to minimise the negative impacts of publishing at all stages: from design, manufacture and choice of raw materials, to the use of renewable energies, distribution, placement in bookshops and consumer use.

Let us review some of the options that exist at each of these stages to achieve sustainable transformation.


Between 70 and 80% of the environmental impact of products is determined at the design stage. Being creative is compatible with such practical issues as the choice of paper, the format that favours internationally recognised standards that reduce consumption, generating less waste, reusing some, extending its useful life… For example, a layout book with huge margins and many blank pages will use more paper than necessary. It is also necessary to consider designs that are not 100% dark, which reduce ink consumption.

Choice of raw materials

Paper production accounts for almost 50% of the environmental impact of a book. It is therefore preferable to use paper of local origin, from sustainable forest management (FSC, PEFC or equivalent) or certified with an eco-label. It is important to know the origin of the raw material used and the different industrial processes it has undergone, and to avoid chlorine-bleached paper or paper from illegal logging.

According to3 the Paper Sustainability Report recently published by the Spanish Association of Pulp, Paper and Cardboard Manufacturers (ASPAPEL), 5.3 million tonnes of wood are used annually in Spain for pulp production. Ninety-seven percent of this wood comes from local pine and eucalyptus plantations and the remaining three percent from plantations in other EU countries.

And there is always the possibility of using recycled paper. According to ASPAPEL, the Spanish paper industry is the second largest recycler in the European Union in terms of volume, behind only Germany and tied with France. Ninety-seven percent of the wood and 71% of the paper to be recycled is locally sourced. Spanish paper mills recycle 5.1 million tonnes of waste paper annually.

Another factor to take into account is the source of energy used in the manufacture of this paper. ASPAPEL assures that its sector is today the largest industrial producer and consumer of biomass in our country. Biomass currently accounts for 34% of the total fuels used. CO2 emissions have been reduced by 25 % compared to 2011, NOx emissions by 52 % and SOx emissions by 86 %.  

Water consumption is one of the most important elements to be considered. Paper uses water in the preparation of pulp and as a means of transporting the cellulose fibre from which it is made. In 2020, total water use in Spanish pulp and paper mills was 102 million m3 per year, which is less than half of what it was in 1990, despite a 60% increase in production. And compared to 124 million m3  per year in 2011, the decrease was 18 % for a similar level of production.

Of this 102 million m3 of water, only 4% was actually consumed, which is the amount that evaporates during manufacture or is incorporated into the final product. The rest, after being reused as many times as possible, was returned to the receiving environment after treatment: rivers, lakes, sea, municipal sewers, estuaries, etc.

The use of environmentally friendly inks in digital printing is another big bet in the printing industry. They are the best option to discard traditional mineral-based inks that contain resins, solvents and additives that release volatile organic compounds.

Vegetable-based inks use, as the name suggests, a vegetable oil as the main compound. Their advantage is that they are largely biodegradable and have a minimal level of toxicity. They also allow for easier cleaning of printing presses, without the need for organic solvents.


The first thing is to decide on a weighted print run that makes the management of economic and material resources more efficient by adapting to real needs. According to data from the study Comercio Interior del Libro en España, presented by the Federación de Gremios de Editores de España, the rate of book stock returns to publishers in 2020 was 28.2%. Often, the final destination of these books is none other than destruction. Although the raw material is recycled, a great deal of energy and resources are consumed along the way.  

In the printing phase, it is best to use machines that fit the size of the paper and the format of the book. And, of course, use green energy to run them.


Transport is one of the main sources of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some books travel thousands of kilometres to reach you, which is why it is so important to neutralise the carbon footprint of your journey and use the least polluting forms of transport: long-distance trains or electric or hybrid mobility projects.

Nor should we forget about the packaging that accompanies them on this journey and opt not to use plastic and choose other more environmentally friendly materials such as recycled cardboard.


The options for bookshops to be sustainable are many and varied: using green energy, measuring the carbon footprint of their suppliers and having them be local, managing waste and their packaging, informing their customers about the measures they take and the ecological commitment of the books they sell… Their work is important because in addition to reducing their environmental impact they can also put pressure on the entire supply chain.


They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps we should start judging it by its materials. A very important element of eco-publishing is the communication of the environmental impact of each copy. Providing this information gives readers the possibility to choose and decide whether they want to support those publishers who are committed to responsible consumption. And when we have already read a book? The most usual thing to do is to put it in our bookshop where it will probably end up gathering dust and nobody will read it again. But we can also choose to let it continue with its life cycle and introduce it in a bookcrossing network, take it to a second-hand bookshop, give it to your brother-in-law, donate it to a library… When it comes to taking care of our environment, everything adds up!

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