In September I hired a firm of environmental impact consultants, California Environmental Associates, to conduct a three-month study of interlibrary loan processes, with an eye toward lowering the carbon footprint of resource sharing operations worldwide.¬† Affordable best practices was our goal.¬† OCLC Research and OCLC Delivery Services co-sponsored the study.¬† Together,¬†the consultants (Aarthi Ananthanarayanan and Laura Keller) and I¬†visited two academic libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area and initiated telephone interviews with staff at a dozen other libraries of various types and sizes across the country.¬† ¬†
For years ILL practitioners have been streamlining their processes for efficiency and sustainability.¬† So, happily, we found many amazing best practices already in place.¬† The key contribution¬†of the consultants was¬†to determine the carbon emissions, per book loaned, per mile, for several of the libraries in the study.¬† Then, by analyzing the processing, packaging and shipping practices of those libraries,¬†Aarthi and Laura¬†were able to determine which practices had a positive or negative effect on the emissions numbers.¬† The result is a list of recommended “green” interlending practices that are finally as scientifically quantifiable as they¬†are¬†common-sensical.
The first thing that jumps out from the data is that when a library uses primarily new packaging material for sending out ILL items, the packaging material itself accounts for more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions per package for that institution.¬† Thus, right off the bat, an interlibrary loan unit can cut its carbon footprint nearly in half by re-using packaging material whenever possible.
There were a couple of surprises among the findings, at least for me.¬† One, padded mailers are vastly less harmful to the environment to manufacture than corrugated cardboard.¬† (This doesn’t mean that using boxes to ship ILL materials is bad, only that¬†boxes should be used only when¬†extra protection for¬†the material is required.)¬† Two, paper with 30% recycled content is usually available at approximately the same price as virgin paper, and functions just as well in copiers.¬† So why should any interlending operation be using¬†new paper?
Other best practices were easy to predict, the surprise being only in the magnitude of their impact on the emissions numbers:¬† digital is better than print; near is better than far; ground is better than air; local/regional couriers are preferable to national/international shippers (because they often supply reusable packaging); aggregating items¬†going to the same destination is better than sending one at a time; nylon bags are better than plastic bins (unless the bins are always full).
The point of¬†issuing these recommendations is¬†that benefit accrues each time¬†such practices¬†can be utilized.¬† The practices outlined here¬†are not always possible, or even appropriate.¬† But if many libraries across the entire system¬†conduct the bulk of their routine interlending business along the lines recommended by this study, Mother Nature will breathe a little easier.¬† And that’s always a good thing.
You can see¬†slides containing some of the¬†data here.¬† A detailed written report containing all the data, the study methodology, and lavish thanks to the generous folks and institutions¬†who participated in the study shall be forthcoming.¬† In the meantime…have you hugged a tree today?Related posts: