Between the Lines

E-readers save plenty of trees but leave a carbon footprint of their own.

By Jodi Helmer

October 2011

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It wasn’t just the weight of the books or the shelf space her collection occupied that had Deb Moore, 51, a Conway, Arkansas, English professor, rethinking her reading habits—she was also concerned about the carbon footprint her favorite pastime was leaving.

Since buying a Kindle in 2010, Moore has downloaded dozens of books—everything from literary fiction and memoirs to textbooks—on her device. “I have always thought of books as necessities,” she says. “Buying e-books gratifies my urge to read and has less of an impact on the environment.”

Moore is among a growing number of consumers who are reading books on their Kindles, iPads or Nooks. Shipments of e-readers rose from three million in 2009 to 12.8 million in 2010, according to the research firm International Data Corporation. While book sales fell almost 2% in 2009, e-book sales rose 176%.

E-readers might be profitable but does the popularity of the technology pay dividends to the environment? It depends on how environmentally friendly the materials used to produce e-readers are.

“There is a false perception among consumers that e-readers are, at all times, a greener alternative to books,” notes Roz Godelnik, co-founder of Eco-Libris, a group that promotes sustainable reading (www.ecolibris.net).

Calculating the Impact

The non-profit Green Press Initiative (www.greenpressinitiative.org) estimates that book publishers consume 30 million trees and emit more than 12.4 million tons of carbon dioxide on an annual basis—approximately 8.85 pounds per book.

To put that in context, when researchers calculated the environmental impact of downloading the New York Times to an e-reader versus purchasing the paper at a newsstand they found that downloading the newspaper to a wireless device such as a Kindle or iPad used up to 140 times less CO2 and up to 67 times less water than reading the printed version.

“When we talk about the [environmental] impact of the book industry, the focus is on paper because 80% of the industry’s carbon footprint is based on paper use,” explains Todd Pollak, program manager for The Green Press Initiative. “But there is more to it than that.”

What you can do

Want to read sustainably? Buy books that use recycled paper and are produced in an environmentally friendly way, suggests Eco-Libris, a Newark, Delaware, organization that promotes eco-friendly reading. If virgin paper is used, it should come only from FSC-certified forests. Write to publishers and encourage them to take these approaches. Through Eco-Libris, you can plant a tree for every book you read. For every tree planted, Eco-Libris will send you a “One tree planted for this book” sticker made of recycled paper to display on your book. Five trees can be planted for as little as $5. Visit www.ecolibris.net.

Most of the research examining the carbon footprint of handheld devices is based on assumptions about materials and manufacturing, not real data. “There is not a whole lot of transparency on the part of the manufacturer in terms of what is going into these products,” Pollack says.
In fact, of all of the e-readers on the market—Kindle, Nook, iPad—Apple is the sole manufacturer to release an environmental report. Apple’s data shows that the iPad will create approximately 287 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions over its lifecycle; in order to achieve carbon neutral status, an iPad owner would need to offset 32.4 printed books.

Researchers at Cleantech Group conducted a similar analysis of the Kindle and estimated its CO2 emissions to total 370 pounds or the equivalent of 42 printed books.

Novel Concerns

There is no question that trading paperbacks for virtual pages saves paper; unlike traditional books, however, e-readers contain plastic, metal and glass—materials with their own environmental issues.
In its environmental report, Apple notes that the iPad contains no mercury, arsenic or polyvinyl chloride (PVC); other e-reader manufacturers, including Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes and Noble (Nook) have not released information about the materials in their e-readers.

Godelnik says he is concerned about the source of the materials used to manufacture e-readers, noting that materials are often mined overseas where environmental regulations are non-existent.
“E-readers could be the reading equivalent of blood diamonds,” he says, referring to diamonds mined in war zones that are sold to finance armed conflict. “A lot of their impact depends on the source of the materials and manufacturing process.”

Books that aren’t donated to charitable organizations or passed along to friends can be tossed in the recycling bin. But when an e-reader breaks—or is traded in for a newer version—disposal becomes an issue.

“Electronic waste is of great concern, especially as e-readers become more popular,” Godelnik says. “As e-readers evolve, we hope that there will be better recycling programs in place
to further minimize their environmental impact.”

No Clear Winner

With all the technical data, complex calculations and concerns over electronic waste, it’s impossible to crown a clear winner in the battle of traditional books versus e-readers.

“Consumer behavior plays a huge role in the overall environmental impact of e-readers,” says Pollak. “For someone who plans to read hundreds of books on an e-reader and will also offset a daily newspaper and magazine subscriptions, the e-reader is the greener choice; for someone who only reads a few books per year, paper books are probably the way to go.”

Pollak also notes that in determining whether e-readers are more eco-friendly than paper books, consumers need to consider whether they’ll purchase a new e-reader every year or keep the same one for several years.

For Moore, who reads hundreds of books every year and plans to hang on to her device for a long while, curling up with her Kindle is the greener choice. But just because she loves having an entire library at her fingertips doesn’t mean she’s giving up on paperbacks.

“I haven’t stopped buying books,” she explains. “You don’t have to pick one—there is no Team Kindle or Team Book—it’s just another way to read.”

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