Technology Trade-offs, Part 3: E-Readers

by Ellen

For the last post in my Technology Trade-offs mini-series, I thought I’d focus on the impacts that electronic and traditional “paper” books have on the environment. 

E-readers, the devices used to hold and display books in their electronic form (eBooks), are being promoted as the green alternative to reading books.

What’s the difference between an eBook and an e-reader?

An eBook is a electronic version of a book.  The text and pictures can be viewed on a computer, an e-reader, or on the displays of some personal digital assistants (PDAs).  You can buy eBooks and download them, or you can borrow them from the library for a certain amount of time.  Some eBooks are free.

Some of the more well-know e-readers include the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader and the Barnes and Noble nook.

Are e-readers more friendly to the environment than paper books?

It really depends!  One reason there is such a big debate going on is that it’s incredibly difficult to give one answer to a question with so many variables.  You need to factor in:

  • how many books you read
  • what kind of books they are (eBooks or physical books)
  • how you read them (online, using e-reader, holding a paper book, using a printout)
  • how often you read them (repeated readings of physical books require no electricity)
  • how much energy is consumed to read
  • how they were produced (publishing vs. electronics industry)
  • what you do with them when you’re done.

Realistically, each person will have to do his own calculations to figure out his own carbon footprint.

Eco-Libris has compiled a fantastic list of articles comparing the ecological impact of paper and paperless reading.

While there is no perfect calculator of the ecological impact of different ways of reading books yet,  The Cleantech Group thinks that e-readers are the way to go.  They released a report, The environmental impact of Amazon’s Kindle, which is available to Cleantech members. They say:

The Cleantech Group forecasts that e-readers purchased from 2009 to 2012 could prevent 5.3 billion kg of carbon dioxide in 2012, or 9.9 billion kg during the four-year time period.

However, there are obstacles to overcome for the devices and their content to reach its full potential, the reports suggests.

The publishing industry would need to put standards in place to help speed adoption of the technology. Reductions in emissions are also dependent on the publishing industry decreasing its production of physical books, according to the report.

Another Opinion:

But, Raz Godelnik of Eco-Libris has reservations about some of the calculations in the report:  “There were two main issues that bothered me mostly: the carbon footprint of a single Kindle and the assumption about the number of e-books the average user is reading.”

Bottom Line? There are green ways to use e-readers and green ways to read traditional books.  You can choose to green your reading no matter whether you read traditional books, use an e-reader, or employ a combination.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of both paper books and e-readers.

Paper Book Pros:

  • Portable
  • Relatively sturdy
  • Reusable and recyclable (tag sales, used bookstores, hospitals, sent to foreign countries, etc.)
  • Will last for a long time
  • No additional carbon dioxide is produced to read them
  • Can be checked out of a library repeatedly for many years
  • Aesthetically pleasing
  • Often are more affordable, especially when bought used

Paper Book Cons:

  • Production of books uses a vast amount of water.  From Cleantech:  “As the biggest industrial water user, the publishing sector demands 11 percent of the freshwater consumed in industrial nations.”
  • Book manufacturing uses a lot of energy.  From Eco-Libris:

What’s responsible for the biggest part of the book industry’s carbon footprint? The answer is very clear from the report: forest and forest harvest impacts with 62.7% share of total carbon emissions. Second is paper production at the mills with 22.4% share.

The conclusion is very simple – the paper consumed for the production of books (1.6 million metric tons in 2006) is the main responsible [sic] for the industry’s carbon footprint of 12.4 million metric tons or 8.85 lbs. of carbon dioxide per a book (2006 figures).

The report puts its finger on many environmental issues associated with the life cycle of books – from transportation and energy consumption by publishers and retailers to the huge amount of books that are printed but are unsold (more than 1 billion books in 2006!) and then are either returned for pulping or reach landfills. But it is very clear that the main environmental issue, when it comes to the industry’s carbon footprint, is the amount of carbon taken from the forest when the trees are cut down for the production of paper. Any change in the carbon footprint of the industry should start right there.

  • Transporting books to bookstores, libraries and your home uses jet fuel and gasoline.
  • Books can easily fill up your house (MY house!)
  • Many more books are manufactured than are sold.

E-reader Pros:

  • Portable
  • Can hold hundreds of books
  • Take up very little space in the home and can replace physical books
  • Downloaded books are sometimes less expensive than their new counterparts.

E-reader Cons:

  • Toxic chemicals used in manufacturing (Sony claims their reader isn’t toxic)
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) means less control over access to eBooks.
  • They break more easily than books.
  • They are electronic and must be charged.
  • They become obsolete.
  • Disposal is a problem — more electronic waste

Here are a few suggestions for “greening-up” your e-reader:

1) Use a solar powered one! LG is coming out with one soon.

2) Charge it in a cool messenger bag with built-in solar panel

3) Choose an e-reader which can be optionally sunlit.  Powering the display uses the majority of energy.

4) Power your e-reader or computer with renewable energy at home.  (We use “GreenUp” here in Massachusetts.)

5) Don’t buy a new device every time the technology is updated.

6) Dispose of it properly!

Did you know that much of our electronic waste ends up in a stream of toxic trash being sent to Africa and Asia, where it breaks down and contaminates soil and water?

How can we make reading physical books more environmentally friendly?

1) Buy books from publishers that use 100% post-consumer waste paper for printing.  The publishing industry needs to continue increasing the amount of recycled paper it uses.  According to Eco-Libris:

It also seems that there is more willingness by consumers to pay more to support a move to recycled paper. A 2005 study of American book and magazine readers found that almost 80% of consumers are willing to pay more for books printed on recycled paper (42% are willing to pay $1 more per book according to the survey).

Greater use of recycled paper will also decrease other environmental impacts of the book industry. Making paper from recycled paper is generally a cleaner and more efficient process than making paper from virgin fiber, as much of the work of extracting and bleaching the fibers has already been done. The results are less air and water pollution and lower water and energy consumption (20%-30% less energy).

2) Try to buy or borrow books from publishers that use more earth-friendly inks, like vegetable- and soy-based inks.

3) Give away your books when you are finished!  They can go to library sales, hospitals, developing countries, schools, friends, family, etc.

4)  Check more books out of the library.

5)  Go over to Eco-Libris and plant a tree for books that you read.

6)  Recycle books that you can’t give to any organization.

In addition, publishers can sign the Book Industry Treatise on Environmentally Responsible Publishing.

Read Part 1 of Technology Trade-offs: Cell Phones and Health

Read Part 2 of Technology Trade-offs: Health Risks of Wi-Fi

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Sources:

Eco-Libris Blog

Wikipedia: E Ink and Digital Rights Management and Electronic Waste

“Cleantech Group Report: E-readers a Win for Carbon Emissions:” August 19, 2009, Cleantech Group

“EBooks vs. Paper Books:” Eco-Libris

“Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Finding from the U.S. Book Industry – 3-part coverage of the report”: Eco-Libris.


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