California Mandates Lighter Textbooks
A hefty challenge to create lighter textbooks is on deck for publishers next year. A law recently passed in the trend-setting state of California calls for maximum weight limits on all elementary and secondary school textbooks. The deadline for these limits to be set: July 1, 2004.
The law was drafted in response to parents who were "incensed over the heavy backpacks their children have been forced to carry to school each day," says Elise Thurau, a senior consultant to Democratic California Senator Jackie Speier, and a principal co-author of the legislation.
The legislation was supported by chiropractors, pediatricians, and the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. These experts testified that increasing numbers of emergency room visits by children complaining of back pain are related to heavy books in backpacks.
According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 1999, "more than 3,400 pupils between five and 14 years of age, inclusive, sought treatment in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to backpacks or book bags."
Another study, conducted in 2000 by the Akron General Medical Center, Akron, Ohio, found 100 of 400 fourth and fifth graders carrying backpacks weighing over 20% of their body weight. "The equivalent would be a 180-pound man carrying nearly 40 pounds on his back, several times a day, five days a week," Thurau says.
California is the largest buyer of textbooks in the U.S., but it is not alone in its effort to limit textbook weights. Similar bills are pending in other states, including Massachusetts and Illinois. New Jersey is also exploring ways to lighten their students' load.
While textbooks aren't the only things kids carry to and from school, they're perhaps the only items lawmakers can target for weight reduction, besides the actual backpacks themselves.
"The problem of overweight backpacks is the result of a child carrying most, if not all, of their textbooks, as well as a multitude of other items, ranging from extra clothing, makeup, lunch, and CD players in their backpacks, all at the same time," says Stephen Driesler, executive director of Association of American Publishers school division, in Washington, D.C.
In an analysis of the "overweight backpack phenomena" published on the AAP's Web site, Driesler also attributes the problem to the elimination of lockers at many schools, and that many kids wear backpacks improperly (for example, slung over one shoulder).
Consultant Thurau acknowledges the extra weight non-textbook items pile on, but says limiting textbook weights is "an important first step." Textbook publishers are challenged to comply with the California law, once the maximum weight limits and compliance deadlines are set.
Publishing industry leaders and lawmakers are exploring several options. One idea on the table calls for schools to inventory two sets of textbooks. One set would remain at students' homes, another in classrooms.
Other options: Divide books into multiple lightweight volumes, or make all content electronic via CD-ROMs, DVDs, or the Web. One radical idea calls for cutting the educational content, though few experts advocate this alternative.
Drawbacks to these ideas abound. Duplicating textbooks doubles the cost to school districts, many of which are already financially strapped. "Obviously this may not be an affordable option for some school districts," Thurau says.
Splitting textbooks into multiple volumes would drive up production, packaging, and distribution costs, which would be passed along to school districts.
"A typical 750-page textbook costing $50, divided into two volumes, could cost five to eight dollars more," says Driesler of AAP. "This is a 10% to 15% increase in the cost for exactly the same quantity of content."
Putting content on the Internet, CD, or DVD shifts the increased cost from the school districts to parents. Students would be required to own and maintain a late model computer. E-publishing also raises technology access issues.
"Until the digital divide can be completely eliminated, there are major equity problems in relying on electronic delivery of content," Driesler says.
There is an obvious solution that addresses the problem quickly and cost-effectively: cut the paper, binding, and cover material weights. Of those, paper weight is the largest factor contributing to textbook weight.
Most textbooks are made with 45-lb. book paper. Moving to a 40-lb. sheet, for instance, can reduce total book weight by 12.5%, depending on the type of cover stock used, says Dave Dauncey, quality assurance manager of lightweight coated operations at Domtar Inc., in Ottawa.
The use of lighter basis-weight textbook sheets is not without precedent. Teacher's editions, with their supplementary work notes and lesson plans, often contain up to 20% more pages than student's copies.
Yet teacher's and student's editions are usually similar in weight, due in large part to the use of lightweight sheets. But going with lightweight papers raises durability concerns among textbook buyers, says the AAP's Driesler.
Students are rougher on textbooks than teachers. And one textbook typically has to last between six and eight years. With most school districts needing to maximize textbook lifespans, durability is a chief concern.
"Less durable books mean they must be replaced more often, perhaps annually, and this would result in a significantly increased cost to school systems," Driesler says.
That's the bad news. The good news: The durability and opacity thresholds set by the National Association of State Textbook Administrators (NASTA), the Book Manufacturers' Institute (BMI), and the Association of American Publishers are the same for 45-lb. papers and lighter weight papers.
NASTA specifications require 40-lb. to 44-lb. paper to have a minimum average tearing strength of 28 grams in each direction, when tested according to TAPPI T-414 (TAPPI is the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry).
This is the same spec for 45-lb. to 49-lb. papers. The bursting strength specification is no less than 16 points (psi), when tested according to TAPPI T-403, for 40-lb. to 44-lb. basis weights, and 45- lb. to 54 lb. basis weights. (Bursting strength is the amount of uniform pressure, in pounds per square inch, required to pull a sheet of paper apart.)
Opacity specifications for 40-lb. to 44-lb. and 45-lb. to 49-lb. sheets are not less than 90% when tested according to TAPPI T-425.
Many 40-lb. sheets on the market today already meet these NASTA quality standards. Paper manufacturers also point out that durability is mostly a function of materials and processes used to manufacture a sheet, as opposed to the raw basis weight.
"High-grade chemical wood pulp or cotton fibers are stronger materials, so they'll produce a more durable sheet," says Dauncey of Domtar. "Combinations of chemical and mechanical wood pulps are generally weaker materials, and produce a less durable sheet."
Publishers can avoid being caught flatfooted by the proposed textbook weight regulations, and avoid durability problems, by moving to lighter-weight papers that meet NASTA standards.
Lightweight papers also offer page-count yield advantages, since the basis weight of book paper is determined by a 500 sheet ream count of 25" x 38" sheets. Curriculum content needn't be sacrificed, since page counts can remain constant while book weight is reduced, Dauncey says.
For all their advantages, lighter weight papers do have a downside. They cost about 20% more, on average. But as demand increases, driven by state weight mandates, it's safe to assume prices will fall, and ultimately stabilize.
– Dominic Maiorino
Dominic "Doc" Maiorino is VP of publication paper sales for Domtar Inc. He can be reached at Doc.Maiorino@Domtar.com.