College textbooks are an exorbitant expense for students, and one that is not likely to disappear any time soon. However, as high as the cost of textbooks is, their monetary cost pales in comparison to their massive environmental price tag.
The price of college textbooks in the United States has risen about 83 percent from 2006 to 2016, while the College Board estimates that the cost of a year of textbooks at a private, nonprofit and four-year college like GW is more than $1,200. Many students have taken out additional loans, or even decided to forgo meals, to absorb this enormous expense.
While students have more or less accepted expensive textbooks as part of the cost of college, there are ways universities can alleviate some of the environmental burden that comes with using physical books. GW should encourage professors to assign textbooks that have an e-book version available. In addition to being considerably cheaper than their physical counterparts, online books also come at a far lower cost to our planet.
E-books are far more environmentally friendly than physical books, which can be composed of hundreds of pages of full-color text. A study by the University of Michigan found that an estimated 30 million trees were cut down specifically for textbooks just last year. In contrast, virtually all students already have a laptop or tablet, meaning that buying e-books has essentially no environmental impact.
While books themselves waste a lot of paper, getting them into the hands of students creates even more environmental concerns. The impact of shipping a textbook to campus is a major factor to consider. Although Amazon flat out refuses to release data about shipping, studies have shown that urban freight traffic generates a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions. What is worse is that the trucks that deliver goods across the country generally run on diesel, which pollutes four times more nitrogen dioxide and 22 times more particulates than regular gas. Even the cardboard boxes that books are shipped in come with a considerable environmental cost, as the impact of that increasingly used packaging is made even worse by a declining cardboard recycling rate.
Given that GW’s bookstore no longer sells textbooks in store, it is all but impossible to avoid the environmental costs that come with shipping a textbook to campus. While renting a textbook from the bookstore may have been an environmentally conscious choice in the past, rented books are shipped from publishers and the excessive waste negates the positive choice.
The benefits of implementing an e-book requirement go beyond the Earth and students’ wallets.
If more professors adopt e-books, it could encourage professors to move more of the class online, perhaps going completely paperless. Increased awareness and utilization of resources like Blackboard is something that many students would like to see in their classes. Having to print out papers, rather than turn them in online, is yet another expense to both the student and the Earth.
Students also see several improvements if there are fewer textbooks on campus. Rather than having to lug around heavy textbooks to class or to Gelman Library, students would theoretically only need to bring their laptop. A higher prevalence of digital textbooks would also help alleviate a lot of the long lines at Mail and Package Services seen at the beginning of the semester, given that fewer physical books would be shipped to campus. Likewise, there would be fewer people rushing to mail rented textbooks back at the end of the semester when students are hurrying to get home. In addition to saving the environment, students and faculty can save a lot of time and headache by switching to e-books.
While requiring an e-book option will not exceptionally reduce the cost of attending GW or our campus’ environmental impact, it is a move that will ultimately improve the lives of students. The world is becoming increasingly digital and environmentally conscious and GW has a chance to be part of that positive change by encouraging professors to select online textbooks for their courses.
Marc Chaaban, a freshman majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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