Open for Debate: The Greenness of eBooks

Continuing on from yesterday’s thoughts on the green debate of ebooks and books, here’s some additional, interesting thoughts from Slate, “Should you ditch your books for an e-reader?

Be sure to take a look at the infographic at the left (click on the image for the full-sized version). Lots of information on how ebooks could be good for the environment (i.e., save trees, save energy, reduce paper consumption, etc.), complete with user-friendly images.

If for nothing else, I’m fascinated in the Greenness of eBooks Question because it’s good for perspective on the environmental impact of the book printing industry in general.

Based upon the infographic (courtesy of, ebooks saved over 1.2 million trees by reducing the amount of paper needed. When you think about the more disposable kind of books (you know, any of those kinds of genre fictions that are read-once-and-never-again paperbacks), that’s a lot of trees.

Reasons to make the ebook switch include:

  • Save trees
  • Save energy
  • Reduce consumption of paper
  • Reduce energy, costs of recycling paper books
  • Reduce packaging and other material costs from physical books
  • Save fuel from physical book transportation
  • Save up to $10 billion per year, if all books sold in the U.S. were ebooks (probably the most debatable point, but still)

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Anyways, from the Slate article:

“There will be no Sophie’s choice when it comes to e-books. As long as you consume a healthy number of titles, you read at a normal pace, and you don’t trade in your gadget every year, perusing electronically will lighten your environmental impact.”

It probably sounds like common sense — but that’s never something to take for granted, after all — the argument is that the more reusable a product is, the better off, in the long run. Thus, in theory, if an e-reader is kept long enough to accumulate enough use-value to replace those paper-existence books, then it is a greener way to go:

“Think of an e-reader as the cloth diaper of books … every time you download and read an electronic book, rather than purchasing a new pile of paper, you’re paying back a little bit of the carbon dioxide and water deficit. The actual operation of an e-reader represents a small percentage of its total environmental impact, so if you run your device into the ground, you’ll end up paying back that debt many times over.”

And whenever we’re talking about environmental impact, it’s always eventually going to come down to a question of this, versus that. Is the Green eBook Question about saving paper? reducing toxic materials produced? Co2 emissions? To that last point, an interesting bit on the relative greenness of the iPad vs. the Kindle: “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.”

I think it’s safe to say that some of the math involved in both this article and The New York Times (“How Green is My iPad?“) are probably open for debate. Actually, it’s really all still open for debate.


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

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