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?
Dennis is a senior program officer for OCLC Membership & Research, concentrating on studies and activities involving the sharing of collections.