Are eBooks Greener Than Books?

The New York Times (“How Green is My iPad?”) got me thinking about a new topic — the ebooks Green Debate: “which is more environmentally friendly: an e-reader or an old-fashioned book?” Conventional thinking goes something like this: books have a cost in trees (one estimate pegs it around 30 million trees used in the U.S. per year, for book-making) ebooks are paperless, and therefore are a greener option.

It’s not quite as simple as paper vs. paperless books (nothing’s ever really that simple, you know). The Times takes weighs a number of factors: the materials needed to produce an e-reading device; energy consumption of running said device, and the ultimate environmental impact of its disposal. The ebook Green Debate also means thinking about the tradeoffs of the pollution generated from, say, buying your book on Amazon, having it delivered by a big brown UPS vans to your front door (“If you order a book online and have it shipped 500 miles by air, that creates roughly the same pollution and waste as making the book in the first place”); or the energy impact of reading a book by nightstand lamp vs. charging your Kindle (“If you like to read a book in bed at night for an hour or two, the light bulb will use more energy than it takes to charge an e-reader, which has a highly energy-efficient screen”).

Granted that there is some informed speculation involved, but here’s this:

“The adverse health impacts from making one e-reader are estimated to be 70 times greater than those from making a single book.

And the big question:

So, how many volumes do you need to read on your e-reader to break even? With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.”

40–50 books for the environmental impact of one e-reader actually seems well within the realm of possibility for a person who consumes a couple of dozen books a year, and is planning to keep their device a reasonable amount of time. There seems to be a good amount of debate about the exact number of ebooks that constitute the break-even point (see the infographic above, courtesy of GOOD, which in this case compares the carbon impact of ebooks vs. books). Interesting stuff.

Check out Eco-Libris for a ton more links on the Green Debate of ebooks vs. books.

Particularly interesting is this one: “Which e-reader is the greenest one — Kobo, Sony, Nook or the Kindle?” It’s far from complete based on the little information still available on the environmental impact on e-readers. But, for what it’s worth, Amazon’s Kindle seems to have the slight edge towards being the most eco-friendly e-reader.

Of course, the most eco-friendly reading option of them all is still to walk (or bike) to your local library.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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