The Impact of a printed Wikipedia on Trees

When talking about our Wikipedia book project, some people argue that printing on paper is "a waste of trees" and harmful to the environment. We do not take those accusations lightly. The environmental impact of paper is significant and must not be ignored. In this blog post, we want to explore the impact of our project and try to analyze the consequences.

How much paper do we need?

Wikipedia itself estimates that printing the complete English Wikipedia will take roughly 2,000 pages volumes. After a few experiments, we came to the conclusion that we could reduce this number significantly while still creating a legible and pleasing "encyclop√¶dic" layout. 

We estimated that we could fit the whole English Wikipedia in about 1,000 A4 sized books with 1,200 pages each. As we print on the front- an backside of a page, this amounts to 600,000 sheets of A4 paper. Common 80g paper weighs 5g per sheet, so in total the weight of the paper amounts to a whopping 3 metric tons.

How many trees will be used for printing Wikipedia?

Now, let's try to estimate the number of trees used for printing Wikipedia with some back-of-the envelope calculations:

For the production of 1 ton of paper 2 tons of wood are necessary which again equals approximately 4 cubic meters. Now, let's assume that we have a pine tree that is about 45 meters high and has a diameter of 0.5 meters. This amounts to a volume of approximately 9 cubic meters of wood. Therefore, paper used in this project requires about 12 cubic meters of raw wood. So we are talking about roughly 1.3 trees that need to be harvested to print Wikipedia.

In reality of course, paper is not made from valuable tree logs (which are used for furniture or floors) but from inexpensive (and otherwise mostly useless) wood chips and saw dust.

What we will do to neutralize the effect of our paper consumption

In our project (and in all PediaPress books) we only print on paper from FSC certified resources. The FSC sets minimum standards for responsible and sustainable forestry. 

In Europe, sustainable forestry can be traced back to the 15th century. In the last 100 years, the area covered with forests in Europe tripled. From 1990 to 2010 the biomass of forests has increased by 30% according to the European Environment Agency. 

Responsible Forestry plays an important role in cutting CO2 emissions by cultivating, harvesting and especially burning wood instead of fossile energy sources. 

As only trees from certified forestry will be used for this project we can safely assume that every tree we consume for printing Wikipedia will be replanted. 

Nevertheless, we will make sure that at least ten new trees will be planted when our campaign is successful - just in case.


Visualizing The Work of 20 Million Volunteers

Today we launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal to print and exhibit the complete English Wikipedia in 1,000+ books. Check below video to get the idea:

The Idea

A few weeks after we launched our book export service in the German Wikipedia, a user asked us to drop our arbitrary 500 articles limit. In our conversation with the user, we learned that he planned to print the complete Wikipedia. After doing some back of the envelope calculations and exchanging emails, we mutally agreed to drop his plan. But the idea was born and stuck with us.

Wikipedia and the book metaphor: Size in Volumes

The Wikipedia community uses books as a metaphor to compare the size of Wikipedia with its printed predecessors like the Encyclopædia Britannica. There is even a dedicated page which continously updates a visualization based on the current number of articles. Currently, the page estimates that a printed Wikipedia will fill almost 2,000 Britannica-sized volumes

Former approaches

In the past there have been a few attempts to create a printed edition of Wikipedia. In 2008, German publishing house Bertelsmann released an abridged version of the German Wikipedia, featuring about 20,000 abbreviated articles on 992 pages. 

Shortly afterwards, student Rob Matthews created a book containing more than 400 featured articles from Wikipedia on 5,000 pages. But even his effort covered only 1 out of 10,000 articles (0,01%)
In 2010, British artist James Bridle created a 12 volume (7,000 pages) set of books featuring all 12,000 changes of the article "The Iraq War" between 2004 and 2009 to illustrate the discursive ways of our culture.
And of course there is PediaPress, our own humble attempt to create a service that allows everybody to print a book from an individual selection of articles.

But however futile or inspiring these former attempts may have been; none of these approaches covered more than a tiny fraction of Wikipedia. A printed edition of the complete Wikipedia remained an intellectual pastime - until now:

Get involved in the exhibition of the largest printed encyclopedia ever

As written above, the idea for a printed edition was floating around in our heads for years, but we didn't know how to tackle the cost. Crowdfunding changed the situation and fits the Wikipedian community approach very well. So, when somebody brought this topic up in one of our team meetings a couple of weeks ago, we said "why not" and gave it a go. Maybe we can find other like-minded souls (like you?) who love books or are just as fascinated by the idea of an (instantly outdated) snapshot of our current knowledge according to Wikipedia.

We came up with some perks that will allow you to participate in the project and eternalize your contribution by adding your name or even a personal dedication to one of the volumes.

Check out our Indiegogo campaign, tell your friends about it on the interwebs and become a sponsor of this unique endeavour.  If you have tips or questions, don't hesitate to contact us. We are looking forward to meet you in front of a large book case at Wikimania London in August 2014.

PS: If you happen to know a manufacturer of huge book cases in search of a unique showcase for their product - let us know. 
PPS:  We have neither decided on the destinations during a travelling exhibition of the books nor where they're finally put to rest. Let us know if you think that your local museum or library is a good fit.