The Environmental Impact of the Textbook Industry

A Move to Open Educational Resources

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon
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VIU estimates that a student spends, on average, $945 per semester on textbooks. This means that throughout the course of an entire degree, each student may spend close to $10,000 on books alone. As students, we know all too well the cost of textbooks, and hear from peers all the time who have decided not to purchase books at all for a course because of the price, yet, another significant lesser-known cost exists that we would like to shed light on.  

There is a significant environmental impact associated with the use of each traditional textbook students are required to purchase. It is entirely possible that the textbook you purchased at the beginning of the semester will have already travelled across North America as many as three times before you acquired it, or upwards of five times if that book is an edition that was used in the previous year. 

This is because publishing companies set an arbitrary “return-by” deadline that holds university bookstores across North America hostage to their sales, and these deadlines have gotten tighter and tighter in recent years. In order to avoid upfront costs, and to ensure that a surplus and a large variety of titles are available, college and university bookstores across Canada must estimate the quantity of each book they need for the upcoming semester. These orders are placed long before students select their courses or enrollment data is available for each program, and even longer before students decide whether to purchase their “required” textbooks. University bookstores are counted on, by students and faculty members, to have enough textbooks available for each student who enrolls in each section of a course. If any of these books are not purchased, the bookstore is required to ship the textbook back to the publisher before the deadline set by the publisher, before the bookstore even knows if that text will be used or purchased in a course in the following semester. If that happens, the bookstore then has to repurchase the textbook for the upcoming semester. The bookstore’s hands are tied, and it is having a significant impact, not only on the cost for students but also the environmental toll of this repeated shipping. 

One can imagine the massive truck convoys traveling the highways of Canada from province to province at the start of each semester to fill university bookstores with textbooks, only to make a very similar trip back to the publisher only months later with any un-purchased books, and then back again in time to be available for purchase the following semester. Between the paper manufacturing, printing, and binding, as well as this cross-continent transportation chain, the carbon footprint and environmental cost of a single textbook has the potential to be massive. 

Luckily, there is an alternative, and the transition is already happening at VIU. 

Open education resources (OERs) are free, accessible, and adaptable peer-reviewed online textbooks and course materials. More information about OERs can be found in The Nav articles from September and October of 2018, but since the fall 2018, VIU students, staff, and faculty members have been meeting regularly as an open education working group to discuss activities to increase awareness, improve adoption and usage rates, and support the creation of open access materials across all faculties at VIU. The VIU Library and the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning at VIU provide invaluable support for faculty members who are transitioning to open education resources. 

The University Bookstore is an integral partner in this working group and the move to a more sustainable and accessible practice of open access course materials. In the last year, the Bookstore has established printing services so that online open access materials can be printed on demand and in-house at a fraction of the cost of a traditional textbook; great news for those of us who are more comfortable with a paper copy to highlight and mark up with notes. This also allows students to keep textbooks for their personal collections and future resource needs, rather than feeling it necessary to attempt to resell learning materials just to recoup any of the exorbitant initial cost of the book. 

As a result of direct lobbying from students around the province through the British Columbia Federation of Students’ Open Textbooks Now! campaign, the BC government committed $3.26 million to BCcampus this April to fund the creation and adaption of open textbooks. This financial support signals that the provincial government, through the Ministry of Advanced Education Skills and Training, is recognizing the importance of affordable and accessible textbook options for students across BC. With OERs students would not be put in a position to make such choices about their education based on their financial situation at the beginning of each semester. 

Between October 21 and 26, 2019, for Open Access Week, the Students’ Union engaged students in a variety of activities to continue the conversation about open educational materials on campus and build student awareness and support for this shift. We heard from many students who were electing not to purchase books at all, taking a hit to their grades because they couldn’t afford the required readings, or dropping courses when the textbook costs were too high. 

During Open Access Week, students put forward the names of many faculty members they know who have already committed to using, adapting, or creating open education resources in their courses at VIU. Knowing the positive impact this switch in learning materials has on their lives, students were quick to nominate and sing the praises of faculty members in their departments who were champions for OERs. The Students’ Union has been recognizing and will continue to support faculty members who are OER champions. Each faculty member who makes the conscious choice to adopt open educational resources is a small victory in the culture shift to more accessible and sustainable learning materials in the classrooms at VIU. 

These victories must be continually celebrated until open education becomes the regular practice, students aren’t making choices between purchasing required textbooks or buying groceries, and shipments of textbooks are no longer being transported repeatedly and unnecessarily across the continent. When traditional textbooks are assigned in our classrooms, the bookstore incurs repeated shipping costs, we as students incur the textbook cost, and our planet incurs the environmental cost.