Ereaders are a Planet Killer?

On Facebook, Writer Beware linked to this thought-provoking, and pretty depressing, article about ereaders.

The New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader—factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuels along the manufacturing process—is roughly the same as fifty books. At first that sounds encouraging; after all, even the smallest personal library contains fifty volumes. But the real problems come in lifespan. At present, the average e-reader is used 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.

A couple things – while this is no doubt troubling, he doesn’t provide an statistics about “the average e-reader is used less than two years.”  For one thing, the true e-book revolution is less than two years old, so it’s hard to gauge the use of Kindles by people who were given them as a gift last Christmas.  Though there are (insane) Apple fanpeople who will buy the next generation anything, iPods are pretty durable.  I’ve kept the same one for years.  Truth be told, though, I did buy an iPad after my Sony reader broke within that two-year time-frame.  But the whole selling point of the Kindle is that it does one basic function very well.  Kindles will most certainly come along with color and HD video, but e-ink is a pretty durable technology.  So it’s possible that upgrading your Kindle after every new release is the exception, not the rule.

Frankly, the problem isn’t e-readers, but the oil-based economy.  People may feel like they’re doing some good driving a Prius, but when each tire has seven gallons of oil, and every plastic component/every machine to build it/every vehicle to transport it, is oil-based, then the value you’re getting from reduced emissions is not all that great.

There’s no doubt that e-readers carry a lot of waste.  But to me, they seem like something that are currently imperfect, but were meant to be.  Imagine an ereader that is built by totally green tech.  Stopping the innovation and expansion of ereaders now means we will never get to that point.

Also, paper books aren’t harmless.  See this old SPR post:

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 basic conclusion of that post is the opposite – ebooks are an environmental aid.  It all depends on how decadent people get with replacing ereaders.  Planned obsolescence also needs to be a thing of the past.  The Kindle doesn’t to have these built-in problems as much as Apple products.  Though Apple software will no longer run on old machines – Amazon is always accessible.  So long as the overall attitude of manufacturers and users is sustainability, ereader tech should be headed in the right direction.  That’s an open question.

  • Ah the joy of selective statistics and quoting make for good environmental drama.

    I can’t see their stats holding up under scrutiny. I imagine the life of things like the Kindle3 to be in the order of 5 years at the very least, if not more, I suspect they might be going by the plausible battery life, no doubt though we’ll get battery replacement kits soon enough to extend that.

    Another thing they left out of the pbook equation was the shipping impact, the flight of ONE book from the US/UK to Australia would be greater than a Kindle shipment alone typically. Each time you buy a new eBook, you’re saving a lot of fuel.

    Lastly, let us not forget how many pBooks are discarded after having been printed/shipped.

    I’m all for eReaders, I think the ‘damaging’ report probably just came from a disgrunted pBook lover or trad-pub.

  • Is the New York Times saying they want to roll back the dimimished standing of print news? It’s not going to happen. Planned obsolescence has been with us for decades. What Apple promotes is way beyond that. I’m closing in on two years with my Kindle. I only turn on the wireless feature when I’m downloading books I’ve ordered on my computer. With that feature off, a charge lasts about two weeks. Even the text-to-speech feature doesn’t drag that down. I use that when commuting. E-readers are here to stay, and as you mentioned, they will get greener. NYT had better thank their lucky stars that is the case.

  • As a person with severe dust mite allergies, I can also tell you about another side effect of having a few thousand books in your house. I’m not about to box up and dump off my collection, but I do wonder about the long-term impact of all of the chemicals I swallow, snort, and inhale to make it through the allergy season.

    The other wrinkle in this apples to oranges comparison is I use my main e-reader (the iPad) for a lot more than just books. I do a huge chunk of my web browsing on the iPad, and the last few trips I’ve taken, I’ve left behind my laptop and did all of my road writing on the iPad with a bluetooth keyboard. So I’m getting a lot more out of that 50-book environmental cost.

  • The good news for NYT and their advertisers is that they win either way! Whether people buy books on paper or plastic, there’s still a lot of money to be made hand over fist on either side of the business, and no matter how prevalent e-readers become, it is a naive assumption that their ascendancy will equal the complete extinction of books in print – Where do you suppose people are going to read/write their books after nuclear EMPs completely fry all of our computer circuitry? By then, it won’t be a question of whether to buy the next NYT bestseller for your Kindle or in paperback form, but where you’re going to find a decent piece of hide/parchment on which to finally scrawl the Great American Novel….

    In the end, I’m just glad to hear that people are actually still READING, whichever environmentally destructive avenue they’re taking in order to get their fix. After all, there are substantially less rewarding activities one can engage in with the excessive use of fossil fuels!

  • Paul, Dick, Jon, and Arthur have made points I wished I’d made if I’d gotten here sooner. But I’d also like to say the problem isn’t with eBooks, it’s with the eReader. Backward me, I read eBooks on my PC, which I’d have to have anyway just to live in the present world. (There’s no way in hell I’d go back to writing and mailing checks to pay bills, to say nothing of inscribing my masterpieces on paper with a pencil.) I’m so proud of my tiny carbon footprint.

    • I agree with Ron that using a PC, especially a laptop, to read eBooks leaves a smaller carbon footprint. But I must confess that I’m waiting for Kindle or Sony to have much better visuals before I spring for an E Reader. I don’t believe we will get away from plastic any time soon unless someone can figure out how to use sand in the manufacturing process to supplant oil to gain similar results. Hey, maybe that’s a multi-trillion dollar idea.

  • Sounds like Ron F. has found the solution. Will it work for all those on-the-go types everywhere these days, oblivious to the traffic bearing down on them as they step off the curb while blissfully absorbed in their own little handheld worlds? It may be Darwin Awards all around for them, but for those who manage to read on-the-go AND survive the various hazards of the world around them, “Read from the comfort of your desk chair!” may not make for the most effective marketing slogan….

    Me, I might hold out for the solar-powered e-reader. Finally – an electronic device you’re actually SUPPOSED to leave out in the sun for hours at a time!

    If it could work for calculators in the late 70s/early 80s, it could work for e-readers today. The question is whether manufacturers will invest in the technology and whether oil/gas companies will allow Sol to steal all their business.

  • Shocker! The New York Times has found a reason to object to a venue that side-steps its friends in the publishing world. I’m shocked, just shocked…that they didn’t think of this earlier.

    I stick my tongue out at you sirs and madams of the NYT, I most decidedly bite my thumb at you as well.