Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 2000

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It's Not Easy Being Green: A Survey of Staff Experiences with Environmental Issues in Sci-Tech and Other Libraries

Kristine M. Alpi
Information Services Librarian
Weill Cornell Medical Library


Earth Day 2000 is time to study what is being done in libraries to promote the well-being of the environment. In March 2000, sixty-five STS-L Listserv subscribers responded to a survey asking about environmental policies and committees, individual and institutional attitudes and behavior related to recycling, and the effects of electronic journals and reserves on copying and printing. The responses provide some data on environmental activities in the libraries of STS-L subscribers. Information and tips on reducing, reusing and recycling supplement the results with concrete ideas on improving the environment in libraries.


Earth Day 2000 -- the 30th anniversary -- is a great motivator to take stock of what is being done in libraries to promote the well-being of the environment. Are sci-tech libraries celebrating Earth Day with special events, or by day-to-day activities that live up to its motives? In the Fall 1999 issue of ISTL, Frederick Stoss reported on a conference session called "How Green is My Library?" The survey discussed here is one attempt to address that question.

Creating environmentally or socially conscious businesses has received a lot of attention from the press and decision makers. Libraries share some characteristics and problems of today's offices, but they also have unique concerns. Being "green" comprises two essential goals -- reducing waste and maximizing resource efficiencies (Makower 1993). The United States government is getting into the act with two presidential orders on Greening the Government -- first through waste prevention, recycling and federal acquisitions, and secondly through efficient energy management (Lunney 2000). Academic institutional greening generally has two elements: operational greening (diminishing waste, promoting energy conservation and environmentally sustainable products) and curriculum greening (promoting environmental ethics, delivering environmental curriculum and support) (Potter 1996). The University of Buffalo speaker at "How Green is My Library," gave concrete examples of the environmental problems and practices at his institution (more information on UBGreen is available at {http://www.ubgreenoffice.com/}). The existence of an organizational policy and how it is carried out on the library level varies greatly.

After the results from the March 2000 survey of environmental issues and practices, tips for moving your library toward greener pastures will be offered. Why should anyone read on? Recycling and other environmentally friendly behaviors can save money and the earth, while empowering and motivating employees. These activities are often as beneficial to morale and loyalty as they are to reducing pollution and waste (Makower 1993).

Survey Results

An electronic mail survey on "Environmental Issues in the Library" was sent to STS-L, the Listserv of the Science and Technology Section of the American Library Association on February 29, 2000. At that time the list had 1003 subscribers. Sixty-five responses were received for a 6.4% return rate. This is a small self-selected sample and it is probable that the respondents lean toward an interest in the environment that propelled their decision to respond. However, the fact that the respondents may have a better attitude toward the environment may not affect their description of the facts of their institutions.

Background of respondents

Most respondents were sci-tech librarians (92%) but there were a few non-librarian library staff (5%) and generalist librarians/others (3%). Of these, 61% were supervisors. Twenty-six states and two countries are represented. New York (11) had the most respondents. Library types were varied with general academic (32%) and general science (22%) leading the pack. Only one environmental/ecology library responded.

Access is provided to the public by 92% of respondents and 69% are certain that their institution receives government funding (this does not include indirect costs of government grants). Environmental or recycling policies were available to 70% of responding libraries (Figure 1) and the library has representation on an environmental committee in 16% of respondents (Figure 2).

[environmental policies chart]
[library representatives on environmental 
committees chart]

The survey asked about attitudes of respondents and perceived attitudes of staff and students (see Figure 3). No respondents and only a few of the staff and students were perceived as rejecting or hostile.

[attitudes toward the environment and recycling 

What do libraries recycle?

Figure 4 shows the items recycled by respondents' libraries. Some of the items under "other" included CD-ROMs and newspapers.

[materials recycled at respondents' 
libraries chart]

The average office worker discards over 100 pounds of paper every year. Office paper was recycled by 94% of the participating libraries. In profiling office paper, Miller (1999) reported that it is the most heavily recovered type of paper with 41.8% of office paper being recycled in 1998. Even though more paper is recycled, much more paper is being used, mostly thanks to printers and copiers. ARL members were surveyed about current issues for the Library Photocopy Operations SPEC Kit. Recycling was ranked 3.7 as an issue on a 1-7 scale with 1 being most important and 7 being least (Almony 1995).

Recycling and using recycled toner (and other) cartridges keep over 38,000 tons of plastic and metal out of landfills, as well as reducing the amount of petroleum needed to make new ones (Erickson 1999).

[used computer/office equipment elimination 

Used computers/office equipment are handled in a variety of ways; see Figure 5 for the responses (total equals more than 62 due to multiple responses). What about the thousands of computers purchased in the United States that once outdated, are stored in basements and office closets? According to the Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report, only about 14% of the more than 24 million computers that will become obsolete by the end of the year will be donated or recycled. Many of these computers and their peripherals can be put to good use in community agencies and schools in developing countries. A list of these reusers appears in Larkin (2000).

Book sales (67%) and donation to others (64%) lead the list of book and journal discard methods in Figure 6 (total equals more than 100% due to multiple responses).

[book/journal discard management chart]

One topic not covered by the survey was the use of energy efficient office equipment. Computers and related equipment have been found to consume, directly or indirectly, about half of all energy used in a modern office building (Makower 1993). Equipment meeting the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star standards uses half the energy of conventional hardware.

Libraries can save additional energy by turning off computers and other equipment if they won't be used for at least an hour. Turning machines off won't harm hard disks or other components. Use master-switched power strips that turn off peripherals at the same time. Turn off computer monitors, if only for a few minutes. That can save electricity and extend the life of the screen itself. Screen savers only save the screen, not energy. Sleep modes save energy, reduce heat and electromagnetic field emissions (Erickson 1999).

How have changes in technology created or changed the environmental issues in libraries?

Electronic journals, offered by 100% of respondents, and electronic reserves, offered by 58% of respondents, are assumed to cause changes in printing and copying. Increased printing was reported by 69% of respondents. Copying effects are uncertain with 17% reporting an increase and 29% reporting decreases. Several participants commented that they have not measured or evaluated these presumed effects.

Respondents reported on environmentally friendly behaviors. Four dealt with paper use (Figure 7) and three dealt with reusable and recycled goods (Figure 8). The question on e-mail printing might have been misunderstood as being about not printing e-mail. An institution's record retention policy should contain guidelines about printing and retaining e-mail correspondence. However, only 34% were aware of an existing file retention policy.

[paper use reported behaviors chart]
[reuse/recycled purchase reported chart]

Only four libraries were planning Earth Day activities this year, though 17% have had them previously. Activities scheduled included exhibits/displays and promotional fliers. Some of the reasons for not participating were lack of time and staff and the fact that other institutional groups were already doing Earth Day promotions.

Even if Earth Day activities are not in your future, there are plenty of things you or your colleagues can do to support the environment. The three Rs -- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- offer a way to consider things that you can do on many levels: individual, department, library-wide, institutional. Incorporating just one of them can help.


Individual suggestions

Work groups or department or library-wide suggestions



Why worry about the three Rs?

While environmental greening can create significant savings for companies, in academia, the institutional rewards are few. All groups can profit from energy conservation and some recycling, but many other environmental activities save no money and can be expensive in terms of staff time (Potter 1996). Sabol (1992) addresses creating and supporting an internal recycling program. The volume was not measured, but time is no more than five hours per week. Small-scale recycling efforts work best with participation from every part of the library, but environmental endeavors are not best judged by measurements of time to set up. It is possible to change things in your library even if there is no long-term plan set up for recycling, but having one helps. If a state is obligated to reduce landfill volume, it will become imperative that state-funded institutions contribute to this effort.

Libraries may have a special responsibility to be environmentally friendly because their recycling and disposal practices are much more apparent to the general public than the typical office. At the New York Library Association 1999 meeting, Debbie Jackson of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation presented a strategy for libraries to set an example for their communities by setting up their own comprehensive recycling plan for paper waste, especially in public areas. Librarians can also significantly influence the people who use their libraries and demonstrate a positive role model of environmental friendliness. Librarians can collaborate with their local environmental management departments to get bulk quantities of educational resources to display and distribute.

Creating a good environment in the workplace makes for happy workers. A positive approach should be taken, as all too often, environmental actions are seen as negative attacks on what we're not doing instead of morale raising on what we are and can continue to do better. Tips for motivating others include:

Green teams are a great way to improve communication. Interested and enthusiastic individuals can be identified to answer questions about what can be recycled, and share tricks of the trade from other parts of the institution, as well as passing on news of successes.

Celebrate the successes and realize that the goal is not to become perfectly green -- you'll probably make yourself and everyone around you frustrated. Start somewhere. Involve everyone. It's not easy being green, but it's worth it!


Almony, R.A., Jr., O'Brien, F. 1995. Library Photocopy Operations. SPEC Kit 209. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries.

Briscoe, G. 1987. Recycling: What's in it for libraries. American Libraries, 18(11): 954-6.

Erickson, K. 1999. The happy home office. Sierra, 84(1): 18-9.

Larkin, M. 2000. New homes for old computers. The Lancet, 355: 584

Lunney, K. 2000. Clinton to issue new green government order. Daily Briefing: GovExec.com. [Online]. Available: http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0300/030800m1.htm [April 13, 2000].

Makower, Joel. 1993. The E-factor: The Bottom-Line Approach to Environmentally Responsible Business. New York: Times Books.

Miller, C. 1999. Profiles in garbage: office paper. Waste Age, 30(7): 28-9.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 1999. Practical Source Reduction Tips for Business. [Online]. Available: {http://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/8822.html} [April 13, 2000].

Potter, J.F. 1996. The greening of education: an environmental responsibility. The Environmentalist, 16(2): 79-82.

Sabol, L. 1992. Building a recycling program: a case study in success. Green Library Journal, 1(2): 36-40.

Stoss, F. 1999. How Green Is My Library? New York Library Association 1999 Annual Conference, October 27-31, 1999, Buffalo, NY. In: Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship, 24. [Online]. Available: {http://www.istl.org/99-fall/conf5.html} [April 13, 2000].


Survey on Environmental Issues in the Library

Earth Day 2000 approaches. It's not easy being "green" sometimes. Are you willing to share with others the state of environmental concerns in your library? Compiled results will be included in the Spring 2000 issue of Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship.

This survey is for science and medical library staff in all types of libraries. The purpose is to get a picture of the state of environmental activities in libraries. It will only take 5-10 minutes. Your response by March 31 is greatly appreciated.

Please return this survey to Kris Alpi by March 31 via e-mail (kalpi@att.net) or FAX (212-746-8364).


1. Are you a
____ sci-tech or medical librarian?
____ sci-tech or medical non-librarian library worker

2. Do you supervise others?
____ Yes
____ No

3. In which state is your library located?

4. What type of library? Choose only one
____ General Science
____ Biology
____ Chemistry
____ Computer Science or Mathematics
____ Engineering
____ Environmental or Ecology
____ Geology
____ Medical or Health Sciences
____ Physics
____ Other (please specify): _____________________________

5. Is your library open to the public?
____ Yes
____ No

6. Does your library or institution have an environmental or recycling policy?
____ Yes, both the institution and the library
____ Yes, institution only
____ Yes, library only
____ No, neither
____ Don't know

7. Does your library have a representative on a library or institution-wide recycling or environmental committee?
____ Yes
____ No
____ There is no committee
____ Don't know

8. What, if anything, does your institution recycle at your library (check all that apply)?
____ Office Paper
_____ Mixed Paper
____ Toner Cartridges
____ Cardboard
____ Aluminum Cans
____ Plastic Bottles
____ Glass Bottles
____ Other: ______________________
____ Not sure

9. How does your library eliminate used computers and office equipment? (check all that apply)
____ University handles it
____ Donated to others
____ Recycled for parts
____ Regular trash pickup
____ Other: ______________________
____ Not sure

10. How does your library handle book and journal discards? (check all that apply)
____ Book sale
____ University handles it
____ Donated to others
____ Recycled for pulp
____ Regular trash pickup
____ Other: ______________________
____ Not sure

11. How would you describe YOUR attitude towards the environment and recycling?
____ Enthusiastic
____ Accepting
____ Neutral
____ Rejecting
____ Hostile

12. How would you describe the overall library STAFF attitude towards the environment and recycling?
____ Enthusiastic
____ Accepting
____ Neutral
____ Rejecting
____ Hostile

13. How would you describe the overall library USER attitude towards the environment and recycling?
____ Enthusiastic
____ Accepting
____ Neutral
____ Rejecting
____ Hostile

14. Does your library have Earth Day promotions or activities?
____ Yes and we will this year
____ Yes, but not this year
____ No
If yes, please tell us about them
If no, please tell us why not

15. Please respond to the following questions with: 1 Usually 2 Sometimes 3 Rarely 4 Not at all
Do you personally .....
____ Use reusable coffee mugs or drinking containers
____ Use paper recycling bins by printers and photocopiers in public areas
____ Use paper recycling bins in staff areas
____ Purchase or encourage the purchase of recycled goods (paper, toner cartridges)
____ Encourage vendors to use recycled packaging
____ Print out e-mail
____ Reuse office paper for notes or printing drafts

16. Does your library provide electronic journals?
____ Yes
___ No

17. Does your library provide electronic reserve materials?
____ Yes
____ No

18. If yes to 16 or 17, what has been the effect of making these available? Check all that apply
____ Increase in library printing
____ Increase in library copying
____ No effect on library printing
____ No effect on library copying
____ Decrease on library printing
____ Decrease on library copying
____ Not aware of any possible effect

19. Are you aware of your institution's record retention policy?
____ Yes
____ No
____ Doesn't exist

20. Please share any comments

Follow-up question that had been left off the original instrument.

21. Does your institution or library receive any state, city or local government funding?
_____ Yes
_____ No
_____ Don't Know

Thank you for completing a survey on your library and the environment. Results will be available in the April issue of Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship.


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