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Ebooks and Environmental Impact

In the interesting and heated discussion in the post about the future of ebooks, it was raised that the environmental benefits of ebooks are one of its major advantages. While there’s not a great argument to be made that reading a book on an e-reader is preferable to reading a printed book, the environmental impact is something that does make ebooks superior to the printed word. Some do argue that it’s easier to hold an ebook reader in one hand and searchability is something they can’t do without – but generally it’s a more pleasant experience to read, and to own, a printed book.

Because of this, the lower carbon footprint for ebooks is an enormously important component and one that could potentially help promote the widespread use of ebooks. Even though ebooks may not be aesthetically preferable to printed books, we’re entering a time where some of these aesthetic conveniences may need to be pushed aside in order to – literally – save the planet. Not to long ago, there was one model of hybrid car and people smirked at the prospect. Now there are dozens of models with better models being developed yearly. In short, tree hugging is now mainstream.

Eco-Publishing

One of the best sites about ebooks and the environment is Eco-Libris. The site inspires people to plant a tree for every book they read, in an effort to offset the environmental impact of printing books. The site has a great selection of articles about the environmental impact of book printing.

Sustainablog has a good summation of printed books’ environmental impact:

Reducing paper use does more than save trees. Pulp and paper mills are also a major source of pollution. They release into the air CO2, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), carbon monoxide, and particulates, which contribute to global warming, smog, acid rain, and respiratory problems. In addition, bleaching paper with chlorine can produce dioxin, which is known to cause cancer. Paper mills also produce large amounts of solid waste and require a lot of water. The industry is trying to clean up, but anyone who’s driven past a paper mill has smelled the challenge.

The trouble with trying to aid the environment is that if you fix one problem, you start another. Recycling is great, but the energy it takes for behemoth trucks to pick up recycled trash and then factories to actually recycle that trash can actually come out a wash. It’s frustrating. So does using ebooks actually have as deep an impact as printing?

On Salon, there’s a highly technical summary of the amount of energy it takes to read on a computer vs. printing out an article to read it. The verdict: “The contrast is quite convincing, one-tenth of a pound of greenhouse gas emissions from reading the document on the computer, versus almost one-quarter of a pound of greenhouse gas emissions for printing it out!”

Another article lays out the environmental impact of reading a newspaper on a reader and reading the New York Times on an ebook. Their conclusion: “Reading the physical version of the NY Times for a year uses 7,300 MJ of energy and emits 700 kg of co2. Reading it on a Kindle uses 100 MJ of energy and emits 10 kg of co2.”

Though it’s sad to see the demise of the newspaper and the number of people it will put out of work, it does seem altogether necessary. Perhaps in 100 years we’ll look back and lament the decadence of all the paper that went wasted to newspapers, junk mail and the like. Because much of what goes into a newspaper is wasted, as subscribers don’t read every article. E-reading makes a lot more sense, as readers can choose what they want to read, without discarding superfluous material.

E-readers and Books

So far, this has covered printing out a book on your desktop or reading a newspaper versus reading an e-newspaper.  Conclusively, ebooks have a superior environmental stamp.  The general footprint for manufacturing an e-reader (for this example, the Kindle) is thought to be 200 MJ and 12 kg of co2. The impact of running the Kindle is minimal. The impact of shipping is minimal as well – you’re talking the footprint of shipping one e-reader and surfing online vs. the impact of shipping separate books via truck, train, or plane.

The Kindle vs. New York Times article concludes:

The Kindle therefore saves 6,500 MJ and 690 kg of co2 a year. A gallon of gasoline has 131 MJ of energy and emits 8.8 kg of CO2, so switching to an e-book would be like saving 50 gallons of energy and 78 gallons of co2 emissions. A reduction of 690 kg of co2 is 3.5% of the average American’s 20 metric tons of yearly emissions.

Though less paper goes into printing a book, the minimal energy expended by manufacturing and charging a Kindle make it preferable. Put simply: ebooks are better for the environment, whatever you’re reading.  As concerns about global warming grow, and the price of e-readers comes down, this could be a major issue that brings ebooks into the publishing mainstream.

About Henry Baum

Avatar of Henry Baum
Author of three self-published novels and one traditionally published (Soft Skull Press, Canongate, and Hachette Littératures). Recipient of Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival, the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction, and the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Los Angeles. He's the founder of SPR.

5 comments

  1. Interesting figures which I cannot dispute as you have done the research and I haven’t. The equation is not complete though without an environmental impact assessment on the production of electronics and batteries. Electronics is a little cleaner since lead based solder was abolished (except for military products), but printed circuit boards used to be (still are?) replete with CFCs and toxins. Semiconductors often contain highly toxic elements such as molybdenum and the disposal of televisions, cell phones and the whole plethora of electronic devices is causing environmental poisoning. Also, of course gold and other metals are used extensively in electronics, and mining in some instances causes massive pollution, as when cyanide is used in processing gold. Add then we have plastics that won’t break down for millennia and which also poison our earth.

    As I said, I’m not disputing your figures, but we do need to balance the equation with an assessment of the impact of electronic goods which possibly pose a greater threat than paper. More numbers are needed!

  2. I don’t think the environmental superiority of e-books (although I resent even calling them books) has ever been questioned. What many green publishing advocates don’t seem to realize is that reading information on computer screens for a lengthy period of time causes health issues for many people, such as migraines and blurred vision. For these people, it is extremely inconvenient to use an e-book.

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