Environmental impact of e-readers and e-books

An organization called the Green Press Initiative has recently released a report summarizing the environmental impact of e-books and e-readers, comparing the growing e-book market to the traditional paper-based book market. I first came across the white-paper via Twitter, and passed it along. I admit, however, hitting the retweet button before reading through the pdf. After spending just a few minutes with the report, I wish there was a way to retract posts to Twitter.

The report is poorly written. A trained editor would not have let slide such gems as “sales of E-books are rapidly increasing, as are [sic] the number of devices capable or [sic] displaying E-books” or “At the time of [sic] this was written.” These and more are found on the first page (the first 230 words) of an image-heavy, text-light report. I don’t mean to pick on someone’s grasp of grammar, but an unpolished report raises doubts about its accuracy. Perhaps because of the distracting grammatical errors, I read the six-page report more closely than I might have otherwise. Then again, I might have read it just as closely, since the very issue taken up by the report’s authors is something I have been thinking about for the last two months. That is, I want to know the answer to the overall question raised by this report: which has a greater impact on the environment, e-books or traditional paper books?

The report claims that, when comparing the carbon footprint, fossil fuel use, mineral consumption, and water use of an e-reader’s production with the paper book market, the impact of production of one e-reader is roughly the equivalent of 40-50 traditional books. I read this to mean that, if an e-reader owner reads fewer than 50 books on her e-reader, then reading traditional paper-based books would have had a lighter impact on the environment.

How green are e-readers?

The report then goes on to discuss the complications of comparing e-books to books over the lifetime of ownership (that is, beyond production). While a book can be lent, re-sold, and otherwise passed on to a friend with no additional impact on the environment, an e-book cannot. Passing an e-book to a friend (if possible, given the state of DRM protections) involves the use of electricity. Reading a e-book requires electricity. So, unless one recharges her e-reader with a Solio or other such device, the cost of recharging an iPad, Kindle, Nook, or Sony Reader is borne by the grid.

On the fifth page of the report, the authors discuss the environmental impact of the servers and Internet infrastructure required to deliver e-books to consumers. The authors are right to point out these potentially hidden external costs of e-book ownership, but their failure to discuss the distribution methods for paper books is, in my mind, the single largest shortcoming of the report. Considering that paper books, as physical objects, require a system of transportation that — in the contemporary United States — is largely dependent on fossil fuel consuming automobiles, the delivery of books from presses to bookstores ought to be factored in to any comparison. Further, after talking with Bob Schildgen, the Sierra Club’s Mr. Green, he pointed me to a column he’d written in which he raises what is perhaps the most-often overlooked environmental cost of book readership: the fact that most people who buy books at a bookstore drive cars to the bookstore. In “Paper or Pixels?,” Schildgen says “to put things in perspective, though, neither e-readers nor books rival other energy sinks. Drive five miles to the bookstore and back, and you’ll use more energy than it takes to make a book.”

I agree with the Green Press Initiative’s conclusion that an accurate real-world comparison between books and e-books will be possible only when there is more transparency on the part of e-reader manufacturers and e-book presses and distribution platforms. Until then, the question remains: which has a greater impact on the environment, e-books or traditional paper books?

For what it’s worth, the Green Press Initiative report is here (link downloads a pdf). It’s not that long, so be sure to read it on your e-reader instead of printing it out, as I did. And here is also a link to Bob Schildgen’s impressively researched book, gathering some of his best columns, Hey Mr. Green: Sierra Magazine’s Answer Guy Tackles Your Toughest Green Living Questions.

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