While e-books are becoming increasingly popular in an ever evolving technological world, no one can deny the wonderful feeling of holding a paper copy and feeling the rustle of turning pages or inhaling that lovely book scent when hopefully no one is looking at you. However, there’s a massive ongoing debate over whether e-readers are better than paper copies for the environment. And it’s easy to think e-readers mean no trees are being cut down so they must be great for the environment! But that’s not a very accurate statement. So let’s explore this!
The debate between e-books and paper copies isn’t all that important. What is important is knowing what goes into building an e-reader. That’s where the controversy over this whole issue starts.
A single e-reader requires the extraction of 33lb of minerals (often mined in politically unstable countries) and 79 gallons of water to produce its batteries, printed wiring boards and circuits. E-readers also contain plastic and lithium, neither of which can degrade in landfills (Goleman and Norris, 2010).
In comparison, a book made from recycled paper uses two gallons of water and less than a pound of minerals and even that amount is mostly gravel used for the roads that materials are transported on. Ink production, however, releases organic compounds such as toluene and xylene into the atmosphere, both which contribute to smog (Goleman and Norris, 2010).
The manufacturing process of a single e-reader uses approximately 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels with 66lb carbon dioxide in bi-product. For a single book, whether recycled or not, energy usage is about two kilowatt hours (Goleman and Norris, 2010).
An iPad generates around 130 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents in its lifetime. Though Amazon has not released any numbers for the Kindle, they’re estimated to produce around 168kg and that’s not including every e-book you download as energy is required to host the server and also to power your screen (Palmer, 2010). Assuming all of these calculations are accurate, the iPad levels out its CO2 emissions sometime during your eighteenth book and halfway through your twenty third on a Kindle. Ted Genoways made an excellent point in his 2010 VQR article by saying:
At present, the average e-reader is used for less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books — not used or rare editions, 250 million new books — each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.
Basically we’re still producing large amounts of both e-readers and paper copies, instead of reducing the production of one or the other. According to Sarah Rotman Epps, a media analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., “e-books are having effectively no positive impact on the environment unless publishers print fewer books in anticipation of e-book sales.” (Hutsko, 2009).
Increasingly more books are being printed with soy-based inks, rather than petroleum-based ones, on paper that is recycled or sourced from well-managed forests and produced at pulp mills that don’t use poisons like chlorine to whiten it (Goleman and Norris, 2010).
(It’s important to note that soy is a major contributor to habitat loss and is only a benefit here because soy-based inks are nontoxic and the production of ink is harmful to workers. The electronics industry is also trying to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and to improve working conditions and worker safety throughout its supply chains.)
Ancient Friendly Forest Books
Harry Potter is probably the most popular book series ever written and is published in over 200 countries worldwide. The Canadian edition, published by Raincoast Books, is the only version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to be printed on ancient forest friendly paper internationally (meaning it is made from 100% recycled, processed chlorine free paper).
Other publishing houses in the USA and five European countries are currently following suit in how they publish their books. Thirty-five leading Canadian and thirty US publishers have formal commitments to phase out papers originating from ancient and endangered forests (Greenpeace International, 2003).
So determining whether e-readers are more environmentally friendly than paper copies isn’t just about the trees being cut down. There are numerous factors to consider and when you start to delve into the information, you’ll find that in the long run, paper copies are still better, especially if they’re made from recycled and chlorine free paper.
Little Things You Can Do to Help as Readers
- Purchase books produced by ancient forest friendly publishers.
- Don’t buy a new phone/e-reader every time one comes out. It’s a serious waste of rare earth materials and the process of getting them is environmentally damaging. Recycle your e-reader responsibly.
- If you’re going to read electronically, make sure you displace your carbon footprint with the purchase of at least twenty books.
- Local libraries are a great resource when trying to lessen your carbon footprint.
- Audiobooks are probably a good idea as well, though I must admit this isn’t something I did research on for this post.
There you have it! I certainly learned a lot while researching this topic and I hope you did too, through this post! I’ve linked all of the resources I used below if you want more information or are just curious!