Are books biodegradable? (7 sources of paper) 

In this article, the biodegradability of books will be shed light upon. Other covered topics would be: 

  • What are books made of?
  • What is a paper?
  • What is the environmental impact of printing?
  • What is the environmental impact of plastic covers?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • Are books biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Are books biodegradable?

Books are made from paper which is biodegradable. However, the ink for printing books and plastic covers used for books’ packaging is not biodegradable. 

The environmental impact of paper, ink and packaging will be discussed and it can be proposed that books need to be made in balanced amounts to ensure that the environment is not put at any great risk.

What are books made of?

In order to understand the biodegradability of books, it is incumbent to understand what materials are used in the making of books. 

This is because the type of materials employed in making any particular product will play an important role in determining the impact of that particular material on the life and the environment. 

To understand this, consider the following example. Natural materials like fruits and vegetables are made from naturally-found polymers. Since natural materials are involved in the making of such products, the impacts of such materials on the environment and life are minimal. 

However, if we study the case of products made from non-natural materials, then it is seen that those products lead to a number of detrimental impacts on the environment and human life. 

A good example can be non-biodegradable plastics. These plastics are made from products derived from fossil fuels and therefore, there is an increased impact of such products on the environment and life, in general. 

Coming back to our topic, in order to determine the biodegradability status of books, it is important to know what materials are involved in making books. 

It is seen that books are largely made from paper. Papers are either hard-bonded or ring-bonded to make a book. Books also come in a plastic wrapper or cover to save books from dirt and stains. Moreover, there is the ink used for printing data and information on the pages of the books. 

Therefore, it can be summed up that books are made from: 

  • Papers
  • Ink 
  • Plastic wrapper

This is not a stringent rule of thumb. For example, some books may not come in a plastic wrapper. Or some books may come without labels and therefore, there is no ink used in such books. 

What is a paper?

To better understand what paper is, it is important to know what paper is made of. In that regard, the answer is quite simple. Paper is a plant-based product. It can also be regarded as plant fibres that are bonded with hydrogen bonding. 

In other words, paper is made from sheets of cellulose cells which are bonded by chemical bonds or hydrogen bonds, in particular. 

The use and applications of paper bluntly stood-out because be it at home, office, or professional institutes, everyone needs paper to store and convey information. 

However, it must be stated that with the shifting trend towards the digital and soft-form, as we say it; it is estimated that the use of paper has been reduced and will continue to do so.

This change is in line with environmental awareness and environmental campaigns. You may have heard the statement ‘Save paper, save trees’. 

This is because the paper is made from trees. If there is an increased production of paper, then there will be increased cutting of trees which will impact us in a very negative way. 

It is estimated that humans have already caused the depletion of trees by more than half of the original amount. The making of paper has a major role in this reality as well.

As per the sources of paper, it is mostly made from a number of common trees which may include: 

  • Spruce
  • Pine
  • Larch
  • Hemlock
  • Eucalyptus
  • Aspen
  • Birch 

What is the environmental impact of printing?

Books are incomplete without data, information and knowledge. This has to be printed on the pages of the books to make sure that books serve the purpose for which they are made. 

We have already discussed the impact and sources of paper. How it is made from trees and how the excessive cutting of trees may severely damage our planet and the life it supports. 

In this section, we will discuss the environmental impacts of printing because books are incomplete without printing. 

The idea of knowledge, enlightenment, wisdom, and books has been so cherished and treasured in all schools of thought, be it religion, spirituality, academics, or Sufism. 

Every learned person knows and preaches the value and importance of learning. To acquire knowledge, one needs to read books in order to know what he does not know. 

As Rumi once put it, “Before you learn, you need to learn how to learn and before you learn how to learn, you need to learn how to unlearn.”

However, very little attention is paid to the environmental impact of books. Although the purpose of books is very noble and divine, it does not mean that books should be made in unbalanced amounts. 

That is why every school of thought has preached on the idea of balance, moderation and seeking the middle way. As Rumi put it, “Life is a balance between holding on and letting go.” 

Incidentally and unfortunately, when we analyse the aspect of printing too, there is bad news here as well. Just like paper has an impact on the environment because trees are cut to make paper, there is an environmental aspect of printing too. 

The ink used for printing purposes is made from volatile organic compounds and heavy metals which may cause the following environmental problems: 

  • Water pollution
  • Land pollution
  • Soil degradation
  • Effects on living organisms 
  • Waste management issues
  • Production of hazardous wastes

This is primarily because inks are made from VOCs such as benzene, xylene and toluene. These compounds will have a plethora of negative impacts on the environment and life. 

What are the environmental impacts of plastic packaging?

Most of the books are covered and packed in plastic packaging to ensure that the books are saved from dirt, stains and any other physical damage. 

However, there is a lot of price to be paid for this saving. That is because plastic is a non-biodegradable product which is known to cause a lot of harm to people and the planet. 

It is estimated that more than 40% of the produced plastic is for a single-time use only. The plastic covers of books are one such example because once a book is opened, the plastic packaging is disposed of. 

This disposed of plastic packaging will put a lot of strain on the environment because it is not biodegradable. 

This means that plastic has the capacity to remain in the atmosphere and the environment for a very long time. Some studies claim that plastics may persist for more than a thousand years. 

This puts waste management authorities in a very difficult position because it gets very challenging to manage waste in this way. 

The current waste generation is already beyond 2 billion tons per year which is a lot. With that, the occurrence of non-biodegradable waste like plastic put further stress and pressure on the waste management authorities. 

Another negative impact caused by plastic is that it leads to the release of harmful gases and greenhouse gases. These GHGs may be CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbon), methane, carbon dioxide, ethylene, carbon monoxide, NOx, and SOx. 

These gases cause a lot of turmoil which affects all aspects of the planet and life that subsides on the planet. Some of these are:

  • Global warming
  • Pollution
  • Soil erosion
  • Deforestation
  • Weather anomalies
  • Pest attacks
  • Loss of life
  • Species endangerment 
  • Disruption of ecosystems
  • Alteration of food chains and food webs

What is biodegradability?

In order to make a stance on the biodegradability of books, it is also important to know what biodegradability is. Biodegradability is the breakdown of waste by the action of microbes. 

These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, decomposers, algae, and even protozoa. These microbes ensure that the waste generated does not accumulate and gets back to the system of life. 

That is because if there is waste accumulation, there will be negative effects of that waste accumulation which will impact all areas of our life. 

Therefore, biodegradability can also be regarded as nature’s dustbin. What is the role of a dustbin? To keep the waste segregated from the environment and make sure it does not pollute the environment. 

The role of biodegradability is very similar. Other than microbes, there are also external factors which play an important role in the biodegradation process. These may include aeration, sunlight, temperature and pressure. 

The time taken for a product or substance to biodegrade depends on the type of material and the external conditions. 

Based on biodegradability, there is a classification of waste. Waste may either be biodegradable or non-biodegradable. 

This is because the action of microbes can degrade not all waste. Most of the waste that is from synthetic materials produced at the expense of chemicals and human innovation is not biodegradable. 

It may take hundreds of years for such waste to degrade and therefore, it is termed non-biodegradable waste. Examples of non-biodegradable waste may include:

  • Epoxy resin
  • PET
  • LDPE
  • Nylon
  • Dyneema
  • Acrylic fabric
  • Synthetic resins

These materials may take from a few hundred years to a thousand years to degrade. While they persist, they cause a plethora of problems to the environment and life. 

Are books biodegradable?

It is now possible, in the light of studied literature, to build a stance on the biodegradability of books. 

For a product to be biodegradable, it is important that microbes must be able to break down its structure into simpler waste. 

We have seen that books are made of three important elements: paper, printing and packaging. While the paper is obtained from natural sources (trees), ink and plastic covers are made from petroleum-based products. 

Therefore, the printing and packaging aspects of books are not biodegradable because they are non-natural and synthetic but the paper used to make books is biodegradable because it is sourced from natural sources. 

Conclusion

It is often argued in a quote that, “Whatever you do, echoes in eternity.” The same is the case for consumer products. 

Everything that we consume and produce will have some effect on the environment and life, be it small or great. 

The same is the case for books. It is usually perceived that since books are made from paper, and paper from trees; therefore, books must be biodegradable. 

However, the case is not that simple. Books are not just made from paper. For books to achieve their utility, a number of other materials are also used. 

This includes the plastic packaging cover and the printing process. While the paper is biodegradable, plastic covers and ink (used for printing) are not biodegradable. 

The environmental impact of paper, ink and packaging has been discussed and it can be concluded that books need to be made in balanced amounts to ensure that the environment is not put at any great risk. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are books biodegradable?

Can you compost books?

Yes, since books are made from paper which is an organic material; books can be made into compost which may be used as a natural fertiliser to improve the organic content of the soil. 

Can books be recycled?

Yes, books can be recycled as well. 

References

  • Tokiwa, Y., Calabia, B. P., Ugwu, C. U., & Aiba, S. (2009). Biodegradability of plastics. International journal of molecular sciences, 10(9), 3722-3742.
  • Alava, M., & Niskanen, K. (2006). The physics of paper. Reports on progress in physics, 69(3), 669.
  • Karthikeyan, S., Arun, P., & Thiyaneswaran, M. P. (2020, May). Summary of non-biodegradable wastes in concrete. In AIP Conference Proceedings (Vol. 2235, No. 1, p. 020020). AIP Publishing LLC.
  • Science Learning Hub. Biodegradability. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1537-biodegradability

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