When comparing paper books to e-books, many would say that the e-reader is friendlier to our environment. And why wouldn’t they? We’re familiar with images of rainforests and wooded habitats around the world being bulldozed to provide for our reading pleasures. As the e-book market expands, however, it’s time to pose the question – is an e-book really greener than a new paper book?
Unfortunately, as is the nature of such a young industry, definitive answers aren’t easy to come by. Production standards for e-readers can vary from brand to brand. Comparisons between books, e-readers, newspapers and traditional laptops attempt to establish facts and find which reading medium is the greenest – all to no solid conclusion. The arguments differ so greatly, in fact, that it’s not uncommon to stumble upon entirely opposing findings, such as these:
A study conducted by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden states that for 10 minutes of reading, you’re using more carbon to run your computer than the embodied carbon in a print paper.
According to The Stranger, you would have to read the paper online for 11 hours to equal the emissions of a print paper.
Contradictions like these make it difficult to choose a sustainable option. In an effort to find more specific criteria, the argument focuses around categories like energy and resource use, transportation needs, and the overall carbon footprint. Below is a breakdown of these categories in an attempt to discern the truth about e-readers and books.
Energy and Resource Use
Both print books and e-readers require energy and resources in their manufacturing processes. 70% of a new book’s carbon emissions are derived from the paper production. However an e-reader generally requires more energy in its production, as well as energy during disposal due to its components. Once manufactured, a book does not require energy to be read, while an e-reader spends electricity. E-reader manufacturers also face the obstacle of minimizing toxic and rare substance use in production. Round one goes to print books.
Both have transportation needs. E-reader production occurs in various international locations, requiring great travel distances, but the same could be said for a paper book, depending on which press prints it. Organizations like Sourcemap offer us valuable insight into this by providing supply chain information. The e-reader has a distinct advantage in the end. The device itself is shipped a few times before arriving to the customer, but from then on the books are downloaded. Paper books require shipping for every new book. Round two goes to the e-reader.
After comparing energy and resource expenses along with transportation costs, neither seems to have the advantage. The deciding factor, then, often lies on the consumer end: personal usage. Popular opinion says that if you read a substantial amount, go ahead and buy an e-reader. The idea is that an e-reader becomes the greener choice when an owner will read a large amount of books on it – anywhere from 23 to 40, depending on the source. After a certain number of book downloads , e-readers add up to a larger ratio of books-to-environmental-footprint, and new books lose out because of their consistent production requirements. This advantage only stands to improve as e-readers become multifunctional, allowing owners to read newspapers, books, magazines, and other documents, providing positive environmental impacts across several uses.
While the e-reader provides a narrow margin of ecological benefit over new books, all participants in this argument agree on one thing: the greenest choice is a reused book. Borrowing books from a library or friends helps offset past emissions and avoids future resource use. Flipping through those texturally-pleasing pages without feeling so guilty is kind of nice, too.