Bookish Thought: Environmental Impact of E-Readers vs Print Books

In my last Bookish Thought, I brought up the discussion of e-readers and whether I should give in and get one by looking more closely at all the possible reasons why a reader should have one.

If you read it, then you may remember that I also listed out possible reasons not to get an e-reader. One of the biggest reasons that consistently pops out to me as a reason to hesitate in getting an e-reader is the environmental impact of having one.

I know, that sounds a little confusing considering that a paper copy has, well, paper that comes from trees, and so on and so on.

However, I remember hearing about how when Prius’ were first coming out as Hybrids, that it would ten years of driving the car before the benefits to the environment would overwrite the detrimental environmental impact of the actual production of the car.

This is something that I always think about when it comes to e-readers. We still don’t have a great way of recycling e-waste. I also worry about how much it takes to actually produce an e-reader versus producing a paper copy of a book; not just the use of trees, but anything else that creates the power, the tools, etc.

Luckily, I’m not the only one who has thought of this.

In various articles that I found across the interwebs (see links at the end), actual emissions data for producing both a paper copy book and an e-reader are provided. Many of these articles cite GreenTech’s data from their many studies, which found the following:

A single book generates about 7.5 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents—the value of all its greenhouse gas emissions expressed in terms of the impact of carbon dioxide. That includes production, transport, and either recycling or disposal.

Apple’s iPad generates 130 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents during its lifetime, according to company estimates. Amazon has not released numbers for the Kindle, but independent analysts put it at 168 kg

To put it in visual terms, here is a infographic from the website Custom Made:

ereaders-002

 

However, according to a Slate article, these numbers don’t necessarily take into account the numbers for each book read. It simply takes into account the manufacturing process. You also have to think about the electricity needed to keep using an e-reader as well. Further, in the same Slate article, the author figured the following:

… the iPad pays for its CO2 emissions about one third-of the way through your 18th book. You’d need to get halfway into your 23rd book on Kindle to get out of the environmental red.

Something else that I didn’t think of in the manufacturing process? Water consumption and toxic materials. The book and newspaper industry far outpaces e-readers in water consumption whereas e-readers use up more toxic materials.

At this point, it seems that it’s detrimental to just read in the first place, jeez!

It seems that it might be better to use the library more often than buying (both e-reader and paper copy). I think the big issue is when recycling becomes the next step. Unfortunately, there are still inadequate processes for recycling any kind of electronic waste, including e-readers. However, one article from SF Gate indicated that around 26% of books end up in landfills and while biodegradable, they release methane gas (a greenhouse gas) as they decay. A much bigger percentage of electronics end up in landfills as well.

Overall, I have no idea if one is really better than the other. What I do know, is that I will now be much more selective of the books that I buy and try to use the library much more often. Hopefully that will help. I already never throw books out (the horror!), but instead donate to the library if they don’t have the book or I donate to a non-profit that can sell them. You can find my Bookish Thought on Book Donating here.

What are your thoughts on the environmental impact of e-readers and books? Does it impact your choices now? Or will you stick with what you’re doing?


Articles I References plus Related Articles:

Ethical Consumer (2016) – E-readers vs books – the environmental debate

SF Gate – Effects of the eReader on the Environment

The Eco Guide (2016) – Books vs ebooks: Protect the environment with this simple decision

CustomMade (2015) – E-Readers Vs. Print Books

Huffington Post (2014) – Print or Digital: It All Has Environmental Impact

Slate (2010) – Should You Ditch Your Books for an E-Reader?

The New York Times (2009) – Are E-Readers Greener Than Books

14 thoughts on “Bookish Thought: Environmental Impact of E-Readers vs Print Books

  1. I read mostly ebooks these days, due to a long commute and a bag that’s already way too heavy to be adding paperbacks into, but I don’t have an e-reader – I have the Kindle app downloaded to my phone. It makes reading on the go super easy and means one less thing to buy/carry around/charge up! I do always donate physical books that I don’t read anymore to charity shops, but I could definitely get better at using the library!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do the same thing with the Kindle app, though I can’t read on the bus. I always love donating books to the library .. thanks for sharing! :)

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  2. I’ve never really thought of the environmental impact of reading! You definitely gave me something to think about. I do think I should use the library more, but if everyone used the library more wouldn’t that put the publishing industry in jeopardy since they wouldn’t be producing as many books? I don’t read very much on my kindle anymore – maybe a book or two a month – but I am trying to at least get through my books more, rather than let them sit there. I would think that on top of using the library, getting used books so that they’re not going to landfills – or at least, not as many – is also a good idea.

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    • I didn’t even know about the books ending up in the landfill and that they produce methane when they decompose! I’m more worried about the -waste and producing the electronics. Although, I guess the same could be said for phones …

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  3. This is such a wonderful post! The subject is so interesting. I was a paper book reader all my life, until my husband gave me an e-reader for Mother’s Day a few years ago. I didn’t use it for a while, but once I did, oh my gosh, I loved it. I haven’t bought a paper book since. I have literally hundreds of books on my Kindle, and I’m thinking that for me, environmentally speaking, I’m actually helping to save trees. But I didn’t think about the environmental impact of an e-reader, so thanks for building awareness on that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad this post did this! It was something that I’ve been curious about for awhile, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think going either way is fine, I think it’s the recycling we have to be better about.

      Liked by 1 person

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