Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Earth Week: To E-read or not to E-read

Earth day is coming up this Sunday, and all week it's Earth Week!

I'm a pretty big fan of living on earth. It's a nice place, and I like to try and take care of it. So I'm always excited when Earth Week rolls around (April 16-22). It's a time to set new goals, take a critical look at the true impact of my daily choices, and re-center and re-focus myself for the year to come. Yay for sustainability!

One of the things I've been curious about recently, though I've skimmed the debates before, is:

Which is Greener?
The Great E-Book vs. Paper Book Debate

Back in the olden-days when there were only paper books, reading green was, if not easier, at least a lot more straightforward. It meant looking for post-consumer-recycled paper, soy inks, and chlorine-free bleaches. Most importantly it meant borrowing books from the library rather than buying new.

Ahh, the good old days. Fast forward to the modern era. Now we have to ask ourselves: Are e-books greener than paper ones? Well I did some poking around on the web and this is what I found:

Short answer: Libraries and book-swaps are probably best, environmentally.
If you want to buy books (yay supporting authors!) e-readers could be the way to go.

Long answer: It depends! There are a lot of things to be considered when looking at the environmental impact of a product. Unfortunately, we don't keep very good track of things like water use, air/water/soil pollution, ecosystem impacts, etc etc ... And we especially don't keep good track of those things over the entire product lifecycle (resource extraction, product production, distribution/shipping, use and disposal)
So it's very difficult to tell how books vs. e-readers actually compare in terms of those measures. Boo.

One thing we have started to keep track of is the energy used to produce and transport a product. Often this gets translated into a "carbon footprint" - the amount of impact that the product has on climate change. So how do e-readers stack up against paper books? Some things to think about:

Trees vs. Plastics/Heavy Metals:
According to statistics collected by CleanTech, the paper publishing industry is the largest industrial user of freshwater worldwide, produces 153 million gallons of wastewater, and results in the harvest of 125 million trees annually. Yipes! However, it's important to keep in mind that trees are a renewable resource. The heavy metals and plastics in an e-reader are not, and mining for these resources has a very large environmental impact. Adding to this, many electronics and e-reader companies are not very forthcoming about their sourcing and production practices.  The good news is that e-readers can technically be recycled. However, e-waste recycling can be a  problematic industry  - both in terms of environmental impact and human health. Using a certified recycler is important. Thankfully many e-reader companies can point you in the right direction.
Verdict? Tricky to say, but paper books probably win in this respect.

Carbon Footprint: Product Comparison
According to a study by CleanTech, a paper book has a carbon footprint of 7.5 kg per book, while an e-reader has a footprint of 168 kg per reader. What does this mean? I'll need to buy and read 23 books on my e-reader before it'll balance out better than a paper book. Note: this has to be 23 books that I would have bought new, at a store, not borrowed or used. The good news is I think most people will far surpass this number of books bought over the life-time of their e-reader. Note: another study by Daniel Goleman calculates that 40-100 e-books may be needed to break-even, environmentally.
Verdict? E-readers win, so long as you buy at least 23 new books.

Caveat - It depends on where you get it:  Borrowed vs. New
Now this is where things start getting trickier. Buying books new has a high carbon footprint, but borrowing books from the library or a friend, especially if you walk or take public transit, makes the case for paper books much stronger. According to some estimates, a library book will circulate about 26 times before deteriorating. Interestingly this has some publishers demanding that libraries "pretend" that e-books get too worn out after 26 reads - effectively requiring the library to repurchase the e-book from the publisher. Ok back to the real topic: Long story short? Each library book check-out has a carbon footprint of about 0.29 kg. You'd need to buy 580 e-reader books to compete with that! Yowsa!
Verdict? Library books are awesome, environmentally! 

Other considerations

Light. An article in the New York Times makes the interesting point that the lights in e-readers are more efficient than lightbulbs. So if you're reading at night, an e-reader is best. Though note that they don't specify if the lightbulbs are incandescent or CFL.

Supporting the Author! Library books are fabulous, I can't deny. But if you have the funds to drop on a book here and there, that's great, 'cause it helps support the person who made that book possible: the author.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I did get a Kindle last year. I knew I was going to be buying a lot of books, and decided it was the best way to go. I use the library a fair amount, but I also want to buy books, and support my fellow authors!

More Resources:  Utne Reader || Green Blog NY Times || Daniel Goleman || Sierra Club ||  Are E-readers really green? ||

So what do you think? Have you seen any other interesting facts or arguments to fuel the debate? What do you read? E-books or paper books?


  1. Very interesting post - and something I hadn't really thought about. Now that you've got me thinking though, I wonder if it wouldn't also make sense to take into account shipping for new paper books. Before I bought my Kindle, I bought most of my books online and had them shipped to my door. With an e-book, I'm sparing the environment the extra paper/cardboard for shipping + gas for the delivery truck.

  2. Definitely. When doing an LCA (life-cycle assessment) it's important to look at the entire life of the product, cradle to grave (and in the case of used books - re-birth ha!). The stats used in the CleanTech report averaged the findings from 3 LCA studies that assessed materials extraction, processing, printing, distribution and disposal. So the shipping was included.

  3. Of course, to e-read, because they are some really interesting reading devices. Is simple taking them everywhere... they are small and portable... mine it fits perfectly in my bag.
    Also, I know about All you can books, a great site where I've found hundreds of good titles and all for free.

  4. Fantastic and thought provoking..what a well conceived post.
    libraries are the way to go, but I cant use one library for all my reading needs, so ebooks it is.
    With the kindle, i still need to use a light to read by in the night, so that defeats the purpose of an ereader saving a lightbulb's energy.

  5. This was a really informative post. I am sort of bummed to know that switching from library books to library ebooks would actually do net harm to the environment, but at least I can make a more conscious decision in buying (or not) an ereader. I seriously can't decide if I want one!

  6. I LOVE this post! I'm going to post a link to it on my blog!



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