Books vs. e-readers: Which are more eco friendly?

Last week, a reader asked the Eco Women which is more eco friendly: books or e-readers, such as the Kindle or the Nook.  The Eco Women had a lively email debate on the topic and expressed their opinions, then Recycla did more research and came up with the following:

The publishing industry is one of the world’s largest polluting sectors — for example, in 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in 125 million trees being cut down, which doesn’t even get into chemicals used during production or the two industries’ massive carbon footprint.

Books that are bought at a bookstore are made of raw materials, then those books are transported to the bookstore, which uses fossil fuels.  If the books are purchased, then more fossil fuels are used to transport them from store to residence; however, anywhere from 25-36% of all books are shipped back from the store to the publisher, which uses even more fossil fuels.   Those book are then incinerated, recycled, or simply thrown away — again, more waste.

E-readers also create waste when produced, but the processes aren’t quite as wasteful.  Furthermore, according to an article in the New York Times, the carbon used to create an Amazon Kindle is offset after the first year of use.  The Cleantech Group conducted a study* that concluded that purchasing three e-books per month for four years produces roughly 370 pounds of CO2 throughout the Kindle’s lifetime, compared to the estimated 2,368 pounds of CO2 produced by the same number of printed books.  (Recycla has not been able to find a study that compares the production of the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, and other e-readers.)

Of course, this does not mean that e-readers are not without environmental impact themselves.  Most electronics are well known to contain toxic materials and chemicals.  Unfortunately, Recycla has not been able to find a good report on the chemicals and processes used.  From what she can tell, the makers of e-readers are keeping that information quiet.

So which way to go?  It depends on your reading habits.  If you only read books from the library, stick with that plan because it is the most environmentally friendly.  If you prefer to buy books, consider going to used bookstores or using Paperback Swap.

If, however, you buy books and you want them right now (as opposed to waiting to  find the right secondhand book), then the next question is how much do you read? According to Emma Ritch of the Cleantech Group, “It’s not just buying e-books that matters.  The key is they displace the purchase of 22.5 physical books.”  So, if you read at least 23 books a year and don’t trade in your e-reader every year or two for a newer model, the e-reader is the way to go.  And, when you do need to replace your e-reader, please do so responsibly.  Either pass it along to someone else or, if it is broken beyond repair, go to Earth 911 to find out where you can recycle electronics in your area.

Among the Eco Women, some have e-readers, some do not.  All agree that there’s nothing that beats the feel of paper in your hands, but agree that e-readers are incredibly useful and efficient.  All of the Eco Women are avid readers and have large personal libraries in which they’re constantly struggling to find more shelf space for their books, so they understand the appeal of having most of their libraries stored on a small bit of electronics.

As for Kindle vs. Nook vs. other e-readers, well, that choice is all on you and the Eco Women aren’t going to tell you which one is best.  One Eco Woman has a Kindle, another is planning to get a Kindle, one has an iPad, and the rest are still on the fence.

Tell the Eco Women:  Do you have an e-reader?  Why or why not?  And, if you do, which one do you have?

*To read the Cleantech Group’s study, click here.

Photo credits: Yahoo Images.

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13 thoughts on “Books vs. e-readers: Which are more eco friendly?

  1. Wooo…this has been a hot topic in my house since my Accidental Recycler loves gadgets. He bought me an iPad for Mother’s Day last year and I don’t even use it. However, he reads all his magazines on it. And me? I borrow all my paper books and magazine from the library. The only books we “physically” buy are kids’ textbooks – used – and get donated afterwards.

    So although Kindle and Nook are popular and maybe argued (as my AR tried to rationalize his purchase of the iPad) that they are more eco-friendly than paper books, I think borrowing books and magazines form the local library are more eco-friendly. After all, eBooks need electricity to charged up to read, never mind the “secret” chemicals that go into making them. .

    Besides, they are not so cuddly in bed or on the sofa. They are hard and cold.

  2. Excellent post and reporting. I just received a Nook for Christmas and I like it. I’m an avid reader and feel that nothing can really take the place of the sensual experience of reading. And unfortunately many of the books I read are not at the local public library. So I have a garage and a house full of books. The Nook is going to be great as a supplement, not as a replacement.

  3. I have a Sony Reader, since May 2009, and I loves it. It’s my precious. I use it daily, and I loaded 14 books for holiday on it this year, and took just one paperback, to read when on the beach (not that we were on the beach much). I didn’t read all 14 but I had the choice.

    I’m reading son C a Christmas Carol on it at bedtime too. And daughter regularly borrows it for classics she’s to read at school.

    None of which precludes us having two enormous bookshelves in the dining room, as you may remember, which are stuffed full with books, lined up double deep and a few on their sides on each shelf, plus the kids each having a tall bookshelf plus piles of books next to the bed.

    I read waaaaay more than 23 books a year!

  4. No e-readers around here. And if I have my way there never ever ever will be. There’s something to the experience of an ACTUAL book in your hands. I hate reading on screens – I do enough of that at work. But I’ll add that we get all of our books through the library with a few exceptions. We always get a book for Christmas from my mom (the retired high school literature teacher). For me it’s the latest Stephen King. For hubby usually something sports related. And we have a bazillion kids books. We’ll keep the favorites for our kids to have for their kids some day and the rest will be donated to a program that gives books to kids who can’t afford them.

    If you are a book buyer, there are also a number of publishers who are using soy based ink and recycled paper. The end product is more expensive of course, so few authors use them. But if more people pushed the subject it would become more common place and price would come down. J.K. Rowling is one author trying to lead the charge: http://www.writewords.org.uk/news/225.asp

  5. I have a sony reader and love it. It is the only reader you can get library books on , as far as I know, which is I we picked it.

  6. Thanks for this report. It supports what my husband and I had hoped. We are recent E-Reader converts (and it took some doing — nothing has the same smell as a book!) in part because we thought it was the most eco-friendly way to go. We both gobble up books quickly and we live in a non-English-speaking country. So, not much in the way of library options and access to purchasing print books means they must travel far (via amazon, etc) or we must travel far to get to the English bookshop.

    I’m amazed at how quickly both of us have adjusted to the E-Reader.

  7. There are several reasons why I don’t want to get an e-reader:

    1. The initial cost is equivalent to that of buying several books new, and then you have to buy the books. Alternatively, the equivalent of dozens of second-hand books which are generally even cheaper if not free anyway.

    2. Though on rare occasion I buy books new, there are already plenty of books already existing and available second-hand. Why should all these books go to waste, no doubt doing no good for the environment?

    3. No restrictions. You can read a book as much as you want, and give it away when you’ve finished with it.

    I can understand it for a. people without a lot of space, and a lousy library or b. students who routinely rely on using a lot of heavy textbooks, and don’t want to be carrying them around.

  8. As an author and illustrator of picture books for young children, I, and most of my colleagues are paying close attention to this. I love the look and feel of paper books, so I buy the books I want to keep, and that’s a lot. But I also love to read, and many of those books I want to read aren’t necessarily books I want to keep. I’m not always patient enough to wait until my library shelves a recently published book. All this is to say that I love my kindle. I went to China for a month in the spring, and my kindle had a large library of English-language books, something that would have been hard to find in China. So I see e-readers as adjuncts to print books, but a valuable one. I do think e-books are here to stay, and publishers, authors, illustrators need to figure out a creative way to fit into the new (but still evolving) technology.

  9. You begin to scratch the surface, but I would argue that this is still way too simplistic. One year of CARBON is not the same as eco friendly, nor capturing the full environmental impact. What is the impact of building the factory to manufacture? What about the impact that your average Apple device is thrown away after 1 year and a new one purchased? What about the impact of the paper industry planting trees to replace those cut down (younger trees are better at capturing CO2 and produce more oxygen per cubic foot of their size).

    Then, there are the issues of all the people who proudly tout that they always buy used and always go to the library. The person whose husband uses the ipad probably supports the authors a lot more than the person who “only buys textbooks.” Authors only make money if someone buys it new (electronic, or new paper). Thus, if people are more willing to buy new if it is electronic, it may actually be helping authors more.

    Also, if the paper is NOT incinerated, but left as paper, you are delaying release of CO2 back into the atmosphere. Thus, paper is a storage of CO2.

    What about the gas used to go to the library? The gas/carbon used to build the library and keep the library open? Same for the used bookstore.

    But, wait, all those electronic books need HUGE MASSIVE server farms to keep backups of your individual book. The DEVICE may pay for itself in CO2 after a year, but you are paying Amazon, B&N, and Apple to also keep the backup on a server somewhere. These server farms use a HUGE amount of electricity. This is not captured in the analysis either.

    • That’s another interesting thing to point out- the hidden energy costs. Also worth mentioning is that the “embedded energy” that is, the energy used to make a product- for electronic devices, as I recall, is quite high.

      The ‘gas’ used to go to the library is not necessarily an issue- round here, for example, the nearest library is well within walking distance.

      Not buyng many new books may not be supporting authors, but as I said before there’s so many books around, if no new ones were written we’d have no shortage. And a lot of great authors are dead- whether they be the likes of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Fyodor Dotstoyevsky, or perhaps in my case old Christian writers like maybe Tozer, Ryle, Spurgeon, Bunyan… Textbooks are an exception to a more general rule, seeing as knowledge in many subjects needs to be up to date. No use for me to (say) get a textbook on computer networking from the 1980s, but I am sure I could still enjoy Jane Austen.

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