Online Texts and Conventional Texts: Estimating, Comparing, and Reducing the Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Two Tools of the Trade

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Many universities are endeavoring to understand and reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—or carbon footprints. Hard-copy textbooks are (perhaps surprisingly) a large component of this footprint. Because they are “virtual,” electronic texts (e-texts) are often considered environmentally superior to conventional hard-copy texts. However, such claims lack thorough empirical validation. An effective tool for evaluating environmental impacts of products and services is lifecycle assessment (LCA). This article enumerates the steps in the lifecycles of conventional (hard copy) texts and e-texts and it reports the potential GHG footprints of these activities. However, the actual footprint of most products and services depends on how individuals actually use them. Therefore, our second objective is to report survey results regarding actual student behaviors. Combining LCA and survey data, we estimate the GHG emissions of representative e-texts and conventional texts; and we compare the two. This allows us to provide insight into the question, which alternative is best? Just as importantly, our analysis also identifies three levers that administrators, faculty and students can use to reduce text-related GHG emissions.