Which is the More Eco-Friendly Choice?
Reading just got a whole lot more complicated: Once confined to print materials, today’s readers now have a plethora of devices to choose from to get their literary fix. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and e-readers are transforming the reading landscape. On the surface, this may seem like a good thing—the more people who read, the better—right?
Sure. But if you’re as concerned with environmental conservation as you are with the accessibility of literature, you might need to think twice about making a switch from paper to electronics. Follow along as we dive into the debate over eco-conscious reading.
Getting Bookish About Book Reading
E-readers are becoming increasingly popular. Since their debut, millions of e-readers have been sold—today, as many as one in four American adults owns an e-reader or tablet. By 2025, e-readers are projected to make up approximately 75 percent of the total market.
At the same time, the number of books produced and sold around the world has been steadily increasing. Put another way: Both print book and e-reader consumption are on the rise. Increased use of reading materials, regardless of their format, results in heightened demand for the materials required to manufacture, transport, and store them.
With great sales revenue come great questions—namely, just what are the environmental and social consequences of all this literary consumption? When it comes to determining whether e-readers or books are more environmentally friendly, there is a long (and we mean long) list of factors to be taken into consideration:
E-reader: Producing one e-reader extracts approximately 33 pounds of minerals, including some toxic and conflict minerals, many of which are mined in underprivileged, war-torn countries. It also uses up to 79 gallons of water and produces a large amount of waste, which is dumped in landfills.
Book: Producing a book from recycled paper uses about 2/3 of a pound of minerals and two gallons of water. But it’s not all good news for the book industry: Combined, U.S. book and newspaper production requires the harvesting of more than 100 million trees, generates tremendous amounts of wastewater, and creates a sizable carbon footprint.
E-reader: An e-reader’s manufacturing process consumes approximately 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels and produces more than 65 pounds of carbon dioxide (one of the gases responsible for climate change). As stated above, most e-reader production also utilizes toxic chemicals, which result in toxic emissions that can make asthma worse and increase the risk of premature death.
Book: Producing one book consumes two kilowatt hours of fossil fuels and approximately 7.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide, for a total of 100 times fewer greenhouse gases than those caused by the production of one e-reader. But that doesn’t mean books go easy on the environment. Paper production often poses risks to virgin, old-growth forests: The newspaper and book publishing industries consume 153 billion gallons of water each year. Producing ink for printing releases volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, which can aggravate smog and asthma.
E-reader: Most new consumer electronics are produced abroad, which means your new e-reader probably had to be shipped across oceans and land to make its way into your hands. All that shipping requires burning a huge amount of fossil fuels.
Book: This one’s tricky, as it depends on whether a book was purchased online (and if that purchase required transport by air or over land), whether a book was purchased at a bookstore (and if that purchase required driving to the store), etc. Suffice to say transportation by plane, train, car, ship, or automobile requires the burning of fossil fuels, so few literary purchases are without their climate-change impacts. Meanwhile 25 to 36 percent of all books in bookstores are returned to the publisher, wasting tremendous amounts of energy in transportation and disposal.
E-reader: One of the good things about dedicated e-readers is that the electronic ink used in most of them requires no backlighting, which is a big energy suck. How long (and how often) you use an e-reader can make a big difference, too. One study found that, for the most part, one year of use offsets an e-reader’s lifetime carbon footprint, provided the e-reader is substituted for the purchase of more than 22 books—but that number depends in part on just how many factors are taken into account. Another study found a person would need to read 40 to 50 books in order to equal the fossil fuel use, water use, and mineral consumption of one e-reader. But if climate change and human health consequences are factored in, that number can grow to more than 100 books. The good news is most e-reader devotees read upward of 35 e-books a year. But if a person uses an e-reader while continuing to buy print books (and doesn’t recycle the e-reader at the end of its life), then e-readers are definitely not the most eco-friendly choice.
Then there’s the question of how many people in a given household are using personal e-readers. If multiple e-readers are in use, then a household’s annual carbon emissions are 600-750 percent higher than they would be for a family that owned or borrowed books.
Whether an e-reader is used for activities besides reading is also a factor. If you use an e-reader to browse the Internet, check email, play movies, etc., then that prolonged usage results in more electricity consumption, which is a drain on the environment. These more sophisticated devices also require more precious materials for their manufacture.
Measures of e-readers’ environmental impacts also include the eco-implications of using the Internet itself. Consider, for example, that servers and computers used to produce and deliver digital publications use a huge amount of energy. The average server uses up to 4,505 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. (To put that in perspective, the average American household uses just over twice that each year.) Then there are factors such as the communication infrastructure required to transmit digital files across long distances, the need to recharge or replace e-reader batteries, and so on.
Book: If you read at night for multiple hours, powering the light bulb in a bedside lamp will likely use up more energy than it takes to charge an e-reader. But most of your reading occurs during daylight hours (i.e., without electric lighting), then books come out on top. Also keep in mind that books, when properly cared for, have much greater longevity than e-readers. Plus one book can be shared with literally hundreds of people in its lifetime, reducing the need to produce additional copies.
E-reader: Electronic waste is a growing problem. There’s too much of it and many of us don’t know how to—or don’t choose to—properly dispose of portable devices. If an e-reader isn’t properly recycled—i.e., if workers (primarily in developing countries) take it apart by hand—then the people doing the recycling will be exposed to numerous toxic substances. Dumping electronic waste also takes a toll on ecosystems.
Book: If a book makes its way to a landfill, then its process of decomposition will produce twice the climate change emissions as the manufacturing process.
What You Can Do
Utterly confused? The good news is that there are a few foolproof strategies to lessen your literary carbon footprint:
- Buy rarely, or buy used. Whether it’s a book or an e-reader, buying new products always takes a toll on the environment. Whenever you can, borrow or buy used materials.
- If you do buy an e-reader, use it up. There’s no need to upgrade just because a retailer comes out with a glitzier version. Instead, use your e-reader until it can’t be used any more. That way, you’re helping to pay back the eco-debt incurred by the device’s production. When the device does die, recycle it responsibly. If you buy an e-reader but find that you aren’t using it, sell or give it to someone who will.
- Buy books online. Large brick-and-mortar bookstores tend to be very inefficient because they stock more books than they sell, which means they end up shipping back a significant chunk of books to their publishers. As a result, books purchased in bookstores generally have a much bigger carbon footprint than their online counterparts (That said, smaller, local stores have big-box stores beat and they’re better for local economies.).
- Choose recycled books. As with pretty much everything else, choosing recycled helps diminish the environmental impact of making those books in the first place.
- Choose eco-conscious vendors. Check out this list of publishing vendors who take the environment into account.
- Be an advocate. Whether you’re Team E-reader or Team Book, it’s pretty clear both sectors of the publishing industry could clean up their environmental act. Use your power as a consumer to call on publishers and e-reader manufacturers to consider the environment at every stage of the production and distribution processes.
- Decide what matters most. So many factors go into this decision that it ultimately comes down to what you determine to be the most important criteria.
- Join the library. One of the best options out there for eco-conscious book-o-philiacs is the library. Sharing distributes the environmental impact of a book over a whole community and promotes reuse over new production. Want more bonus points? Walk or bike to the library. [You might want to mention that many libraries now loan out e-books.]
The bottom line? When satisfying the bibliophilic itch, buy less, borrow and share more, and get yourself a library card. Mother Earth will thank you.
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