Is Renting Textbooks Green? Carbon Offsets and Trees, oh my !!

In our last article, we discussed how textbook renting, in the form of buying a textbook from your local bookstore and selling books back afterwords, has been happening for years, and is more environmentally friendly than renting from today’s textbook rental companies.  Renting books addresses some real problems, like helping to reduce the cost of college and avoid the uncertainty of being able to sell your book back for a reasonable price.  However, there is an environmental impact to shipping single books back and forth.  In this article, we’ll outline the environmental impacts, and then look at what book rental companies are doing to mitigate these factors.

First, why does renting books have a greater environmental impact than buying and selling them old school style from a local source that might already have the same textbook on its shelves?

  1. Last I checked, teleportation only works in the movies or on the back of a napkin after a few too many beers.  Books still need to be shipped, and to get them there safely, they need to be individually packaged.  When you receive that book, what happens to the packaging?  Is it recycled or thrown away?
  2. Rather than using the existing warehouses that large textbook distributors already have in place, each rental company has its own facilities.  So rather than efficiency associated with scale, the proliferation of rental companies have increased the total footprint of textbook distribution by having their own facilities.
  3. The book has to get to you, usually via mail.  While the last mile is done on foot, all the miles before that are on trucks and airplanes (high polluters), especially if you order last minute.  (Help the earth and buy your books early!)

So what are book rental companies doing to address their environmental impact?

Tina Couch, of Chegg, was one of the first in the industry to answer our question about environmental impact – you can see her response:

Chegg has partnered with American Forest Global ReLeaf program to plant a tree every time a student rents from us. In three short years, we’ve planted nearly 3 million trees in Lake Tahoe, Cameroon, and Guatemala. We are proud to be American Forest’s largest tree planting partners.

An important note here is that Chegg is in partnership with a third party organization that can provide verifiable results of Chegg’s efforts.  Chegg also buys back textbooks which helps recycle them by giving other college students the opportunity to use them again.

BookRenter takes things one step further by becoming a certified Green Business by the Santa Clara County, CA Green Business Program.  BookRenter also addresses the carbon impact of shipping by partnering with CarbonFund.org.  The effectiveness of (monetary) carbon offsets can definitely be argued, but BookRenter instead directs its contribution towards curbing landfill methane gas emission.  They have also signed the Green Printing Initiative’s Book Industry Treatise, which is a collective effort to find ways of lessening the publishing industries global environmental impact.

CampusBookRentals does not appear to be directly addressing their environmental impact.  However, their Make a Difference Program addresses social concerns by partnering with a different development project every year.  In 2008, they supported the One Laptop Per Child Foundation.  In 2009, CampusBookRentals worked with a local elementary school for underprivileged students.  They have yet to announce their project for 2010.

What about the rest of the industry?  Skoobit is partnered with CarbonFund.org to help offset additional carbon from shipping, and CollegeBookRenter supports the American Heart Association.  However, as you survey many of the other companies in our database and in the marketplace, be aware of what each is doing (or not doing) to help their communities.  We will leave these companies in our database and price comparison, but you might consider spending an extra dollar with one of the companies that gives back to the global environment.

Some sobering thoughts:

17.6 million – Number of college students in 2006 (National Center for Education Statistics)

5.3 textbooks – The average number of textbooks per semester for a college student (Student Monitor)

186.56 million – Number of textbooks purchased each year (that could be purchased, rented, or be in electronic format)

8,333 sheets – Number of paper sheets from an average 40 foot tree (Conservatree.org)

500 pages – Our own estimate of the average length of a textbook (Bookshelves in the office)

16.6 textbooks – The number of textbooks per your average 40 foot tree

11.2 million – The number of trees that would be used if textbooks were produced new each year

Some companies are promoting etextbooks and other ebooks which obviously go a long way to saving trees and reducing carbon emissions compared to traditional book production and consumption; however, the use of etextbooks seem very limited right now – why?  We will investigate this question in our next post.

Comments

  1. The team at BookRenter is proud to do our part when it comes to being green. We have been a certified green business since 2007 and pledge to stay green 365 days a year by:

    – Offsetting the carbon associated with the roundtrip shipping of our books (thanks to CarbonFund!)
    – Printing double sided or on scrap paper
    – Recycling everything – paper, plastic, electronics and more
    – Having headquarters less than 15 miles from home for 40% of employees
    – Supporting another 30% of employees that carpool or take public transit

    And as part of our Earth Day 2010 campaign we are saving a tree for every new Facebook fan we receive. Our goal is to save 10,000 trees through a donation to Sustainable Harvest International (this runs the entire month of April). BookRenter is committed to “giving back” to local, national and global communities – we have lots of great stuff planned for the future. Stay tuned!

  2. Here's how BookRenter.com stacks up to your above questions:

    1. Although used copies of new book editions can't be found, BookRenter does offers these editions for rent. There's no “age limit” for the books offered for rent, allowing students to save on any book, no matter how new or old it is.

    2. BookRenter acknowledges the environmental impact of back and forth shipping with its business model, which is why it partners with Carbonfund.org to offset roundtrip shipping for orders. The company also encourages customers to save the box their books arrive in so they can reuse it to ship their textbooks back. No matter what type of packaging customers use to send back their books, all materials are recycled when they get back to BookRenter's facilities.

    3. For several years, BookRenter has been a Bay Area Certified Green Business. In order to be certified, a company must commit to reducing its carbon footprint in a variety of ways. Main examples of how BookRenter stays green include: Buying products made of recycled material (primarily office supplies and furniture); Recycling as much as possible (paper, cans and bottles, plastic, and ewaste); Conserving resources (turning off lights when not in use, having low-flow faucets and toilets); Reusing whenever possible (using rechargeable batteries and printing on scrap paper). BookRenter's certification gets reviewed annually, ensuring that it's maintaining green standards and implementing new ones whenever possible.

    4. The option of ebooks for textbooks is still relatively fuzzy. The hardware out there today is not cheap (Kindles start at $259 and iPads at $499) and currently doesn't allow users to highlight or bookmark pages. These are a few of the reasons BookRenter thinks that the traditional textbook will be used for quite some time. Environmentally speaking, reusing a printed book multiple times is less damaging than millions of students buying electronic devices that require power and that are built with metals and other non-renewable resources. Similarly, if ebook hardware goes the way of computers and MP3 players and gets frequently updated, older versions will get thrown away rather than recycled, creating a negative environmental impact.

    Lara Sneddon
    Green Specialist
    BookRenter.com

  3. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for the speedy and thorough reply. We can not wait to see your new program, and thanks for your commitment to being a environmentally responsible company.

  4. Hi Lara,

    Wow – great information and thanks for the in-depth reply. We agree that etextbooks are a little fuzzy right now and that the electronics industry is lagging in their environmental responsiveness. We will be exploring the ebook option more in our next post in this series.

  5. College tuition is high enough and students and parents already pay a lot of money for college classes. On top of tuition is the cost of class materials and textbooks. Textbook renting allows students to save time, money and stress. And you don't have to worry about your books collecting dust on a bookshelf after the class is over. More and more online booksellers are offering textbook rental and the benefits are endless.

  6. College tuition is high enough and students and parents already pay a lot of money for college classes. On top of tuition is the cost of class materials and textbooks. Textbook renting allows students to save time, money and stress. And you don't have to worry about your books collecting dust on a bookshelf after the class is over. More and more online booksellers are offering textbook rental and the benefits are endless.

  7. Another Day in 2009 says:

    Getting Started With Textbook Rental

  8. I’d like to briefly introduce myself – I’m part of the internet marketing team for BookRenter.com – a leading textbook rental site. I recently visited your blog and found that both the content and the audience were very much in line with our audience set. I’d like to discuss potential advertising/partnership opportunities with you – please let me know if this is of interest.

  9. Chegg, the silly textbook rental company that has raised $140m, led by Kleiner, is NOT the reason. Amazon will never rent textbooks because it would given them assets in 50 states and thus taxable nexus. No conflict.

    Doerr Probably calculated that his board service was not worth the carbon. He may have been right, although he played a huge role getting AMZN up and going.

    Pretty fair chance that GOOG and AMZN are both chasing after the iPad market. They should do it together — meaning that the Kindle should become an Android device. Doerr's resignation suggests that won't happen.

  10. Textbook rentals are starting to catch on – the high cost of textbooks coupled with students' preference for a real book over digital have driven rental demand over the last year.

    That demand has highlighted a few issues:

    1) Shipping speed. It may shock you to learn that many college students don't plan ahead and buy their books well before they need them.

    2) Selection. Popular textbooks have gone out of stock quickly at some textbook rental sites.

    3) Terms. Some colleges offer 30 day classes, while textbook rental sites offer only four month or longer terms.

    Several textbook rental sites have addressed all of these difficulties. the best I've found is National Book Rentals at Bigger selection, more shipping options (at a reasonable price), and shorter rental terms (at a lower price).