eBook vs Real Book: The Green Off

The Kindle

This week I attended a talk by an environmental consultant on the carbon footprint of publishing. The talk was mostly on the ways in which industry in general is trying to become more green and environmentally conscious, but there was a section on traditional print vs. eReaders which I found quite interesting and thought you would like to share.

The talk said that producing the production and lifetime energy use of an iPad 2 produces 105kg CO2 equivalent gases (no idea of the figures they used for hours spent reading). The kindle has a worse environmental profile even if you assume that it has a similar footprint (though the talk said it was slightly higher than an iPad) because it is not multifunctional in the same way as an iPad. When pressed the man giving the talk told me that the lifetime of an e reader is considered to be three years.

So where does this leave me, a diehard paper book fan? Well, the production of 100 paperback books is marginally higher at approximately 200 kg of CO2e (this figure is far from precise as paper books vary in size, production methods etc.) but the talk used the average 2 kg for the production of an individual paperback and I will go with this. So you can see that gram for carbon footprint gram the e reader appears to be the greener option.

But… and this pondering in no way represents the views of the company I work for or the man who failed to give me an adequate answers to these question…  does this take reading and buying habits into account? And does it look at the bigger green picture?

Of course CO2 is a helpful indicator of environmental impact, but shouldn’t ecological factors like the impact of materials used be taken into consideration? Surely wood grown in properly managed forests (a renewable resource, creating paper a recyclable one) is preferable to the plastics (crude oil) and metal (mining, strip mining etc) involved in an e reader. Can you recycle an eReader?

On to the reading habits. Ideally publishers would like everyone who reads a book to buy a copy of that book, but when it comes to fiction, how many people actually do that? Books are transferable products which can be passed around the family or friendship group or bought second-hand (second-hand being a key word in green). eBooks have DRM encryption to prevent people transferring them, not making them single use, but effectively restricting their ownership to one individual.

“Not an individual!” The adverts cry, “eReaders can be shared among the family!” A beautiful vision, but I think everyone knows how possessive children and teenagers can be. They will all want their own e reader and fair enough really, if you can’t read at the same time.

I’d also like the general populace surveyed so that we got a more accurate impression of the nation’s reading habits. I know that a lot of my friends bought a kindle because it was the latest gadget (not multifunctional, the i pad less of an issue) and I know that they don’t read more that the 17.5 books per year that you would need to buy to make the i pad the greener choice- let alone the higher numbers required for the kindle.

I am aware that I am hopelessly biased. But it does irritate me that people are lead to think of the e reader as a greener choice without thinking of the wider issues.

7th-8th century Lindisfarne Gospels- 433.3 times older than a modern e reader can expect to live

The shamelessly biased bottom line is that for me it’s about the lifetime and history of the book. I have books that I read in my first year at university (seven years ago), during my GCSEs (ten or more) and during my childhood. I have books that are older than my father (53 years) and a treasured copy of Wuthering Heights from 1897 (114 years old). They are beautiful works of art and pieces of history that I will treasure and hand on to people who will one day love them as much as I do. And for me no gadget has that staying power. An eReader will be in landfill (not rotting) while those books are still read and enjoyed.

15 thoughts on “eBook vs Real Book: The Green Off

  1. Julia

    I’ve always been for the environment, and anything that can help restore and preserve it. If an eReader was the answer, I’d be all for it. But it’s just not going to happen. Like you pointed out, books don’t end up in a landfill, they are passed along to friends, family members, total strangers. True, I’d prefer a more eco-friendly way to print and produce paperbacks- more publishers need to incorporate recycled paper into their business plan- but ultimately, I feel technology will be the death of us.

    Besides, there’s nothing like the smell of an old book, the feel of the crinkled pages between your fingers, the satisfaction of turning the last page.

  2. Jen Moore (@jenemoore)

    I enjoy my ereader, but I absolutely agree, there’s no way it’s the “green” option. I’ve read books that were over a hundred years old. I own books that were printed fifty years ago; I own books I bought new more than a dozen years ago. These books are not ending up in a landfill, but the ereader? I honestly don’t know how recyclable its parts are.

    It’s true that books do end up in landfills, sooner or later, but they go through a lot of use before then. I would venture to say you’d get more value out of the carbon footprint of manufacturing a book than an ereader, in the long run.

  3. Phantoms Siren

    The life span of an e-reader is only 3 years?!?

    I agree, old books hang around for years between people, and when they’re completely beyond saving you can recycle/reuse/repurpose books in lots of different way. A dead e-reader is a paperweight. Plus you can’t dry out an e-reader on the radiator if you drop it in the tub and still read it the next day :p

    I seem to remember reading in one of the Pratchett Discworld science books that book production was actually a good way to lock down carbon, but now I can’t find the book with the quote in it. Sigh.

  4. feistygirl

    I would prefer a book any day….I want to turn the pages, i like the smell of old books, i love them when they turn yellow and i dont want to strain my eyes reading on my computer!

  5. orange

    I was talking with a friend the other day and we agreed that we would like to see all paper books come with a code that allowed them to be downloaded as e-books. Much as we love having bookshelves and the pleasure of reading paper, the practicality of ebooks is just incomparable. This solution would also make it easier to lend books to friends and maintain the paper publishing (with its lovely covers). However, that would make reading EVEN LESS green and annihilate the argument for e-readers being greener…

  6. Nancy Rose

    It seems that as we enter more consciousness about what we are doing to the environment, people come up with ideas to “Help”, even in small areas. While the e-reader may have been introduced to help save the trees, I do not believe that one of its primary purposes was to save the environment. I agree that going green has a long way to go, but we are making good progress. e-reader has a long way to go for being green. I agree that there will be way more devices and minimal effort is going into disposal and recycling.

  7. Craig

    Sad reality…most of us reading and especially contributing to this blog acquire both the gadgets (iphone, smartphone, pods, pads, etc.) that have eReaders and buy paper books, too. Not a simple either/or, yes/no decision, but more of an aesthetic argument and point of conversation….paved with good intentions.


  8. Rose Kudlac

    Melissa, you said that the production of paperbacks is approximately 200kg of CO2e, but you didn’t talk about transportation.

    If I order a book from Amazon, it needs to be shipped from who-knows-where, new or used. We don’t just get used books from our grandmothers.

    Also you said that “producing the production and lifetime energy use of an iPad 2 produces 105kg CO2 equivalent gases”, but didn’t talk about producing the iPad 2 itself.

    I think the argument about passing e-readers around is specious. ‘They will all want their own e-readers’ is not much different than saying ‘they will all want their own books’.

    Books also have to be stored, requiring stuff like bookshelves and SPACE and bookstores. Despite improvements in energy efficiency, the size of the average house in my city has GROWN by about 100% in the last 50 years. In most cases, that space has to be heated and cooled. Most people I know don’t keep their books outside. I have shelves filled with books that really could be thinned.

    I don’t have an e-reader, but I don’t see it as either/or. You can have your book and smell it too – I think sharing is key. That way, you can get the e-reader usage up enough without having to go cold turkey on books. Just get over the ‘I need my own’.

  9. knicnax

    Unless someone produces and actual study about the lifetime of books and ebook readers, we can never truly know which one is the greener option. Not all ebooks are digitally marked to be able to be read on one device only. There’s a huge resource of ebooks out there, some “hacked” versions that you can download.

    People buy classic books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Scarlet Letter, these are timeless books that needs to be reproduced over and over again, when you can download these for free as ebooks (royalties have expired already so you’re not pirating the book at all).

    An ebook reader is just a tool to read, it’s not fair to just base the comparison on an ebook reader, the ebook itself should be considered on how green it is.

    1. Siobhan

      I know that classic books can be downloaded for nothing and read over again if you like, but then you could also borrow them from your library so for me it comes back to the renewability of the green reader.

      I would never condone downloading a hacked version of a book though. It’s disrespectful to the author who put a lot of work into writing it, and undermines the ability of the publishing industry to invest in new talent.

  10. Helen

    Well – as a rare and antiquarian book seller for years – another consideration.
    Paper has only been made out of trees for 125 years — since 1887.

    Most books were printed on recycled clothes — rag. (Cotton, linen, hemp)

    A book printed on hemp could last 2000 years. We’ve found paper samples that date back to 200 BC — and the fiber was hemp.

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it. (You cannot get high – it’s hemp)

    1. Siobhan

      Thanks Helen, that’s a really interesting point. The potential for double recycling there. I recently visited the Treasures of the Bodleian at the Bodleian Library. A stunning reminder of the beauty of ancient books.

  11. Miriam Joy

    I’m a library haunter and I don’t often buy books. When I do, I buy them onto my Kindle. Is it 17.5 books a year that’s needed to make it greener? Well, this year I’ve read well over 200, probably closer to 250 or 300. I didn’t get the Kindle until a month ago so a very small percentage of them were on there, but from January I can see myself reading on that about half of the time.
    When you read at the speed I read, it’s a bit pointless to buy paperback books. No, it’s not pointless – I reread almost everything. But what I’ll usually do, unless I adore the author and know I’m going to like it, is read it in the library first and then if I know it’s something I’ll want to read again I might buy it. Take Ptolemy’s Gate, for example, by Jonathan Stroud. When I got it out of the library for the fifth time, I started to get odd looks, so I bought it. Hardback. Admittedly, from a charity shop, but it was perfect condition 🙂
    I think books have different benefits to ebooks. However, since a lot of things in second hand shops get thrown away if they don’t sell after a period of time, books can be quite bad for the environment. Kindles, on the other hand, require charging. But as for multipurpose, I use that thing for a lot of stuff – emails, Twitter, reading, homework….
    I can’t remember what point I was intending to make when I started writing this comment, so I’m going to stop before I ramble for too long.

    1. Siobhan

      I didn’t realise that you could check emails and tweet from a kindle. As you say though, it very much depends on your individual reading habits, I’m pretty sure that most kindle owners don’t read as much as you.


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