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Environmental impact of e-books vs. paper books

By Stephen Lowman

Earth Day 2010 presents eco-conscious bookworms with a conundrum: What’s the most planet-friendly way to read?

E-book sales in 2009 were up an eye popping 176 percent over 2008, according to the Association of American Publishers, and consumers have more options than ever when it comes to the device they use. The cost of e-readers is falling, the number of available titles is increasing, and future sales estimates indicate the gadgets are here to stay. Forrester Research predicts 10 million e-readers sold this year.

But books haven’t gone away. Approximately 1.45 million tons of paper were used last year to produce them, according to the Green Press Initiative. That’s the equivalent of nearly 25 million trees.

Newspapers are even worse offenders. Although newspapers have been put on a deathwatch, the sector still consumed 5.7 million tons of paper, or about 67 million trees. Together, books and newspaper emits the equivalent of nearly 34.5 million tons (or 6.3 million cars’ worth) of carbon dioxide every year.

Given those staggering numbers, surely e-readers must be a more eco-friendly way to read, right? Not so fast, said Green Press Initiative program manager Todd Pollack.

“It is almost certain that e-readers have the potential to reduce the impacts associated with harvesting trees and forest conversion, but that does not guarantee that they are the better choice from an environmental standpoint,” he wrote in an email. “We don’t have enough information to say which method of reading a book is best for the environment.”

The difficulty lies in the array of factors that must be taken into consideration.

It is easy to calculate the energy consumed by simply turning on and using the device. But Casey Harrell, a Greenpeace information technology analyst, said there are energy costs associated with e-readers that make it difficult to measure the impact precisely.

“About forty percent of the energy costs is embedded in the supply chain” — mining, shipping, water usage, manufacturing, etc. — “and it is difficult to put numbers on that,” he said. Many manufacturers aren’t keen on sharing what’s in the devices, anyway.

Furthermore, the server farms that allow a digital book to be downloaded to an e-reader also consume an immense amount of energy.

“These data centers do not tip in the e-reader’s favor,” Harrell said. “They’re often dependent upon the electricity grid, and our electricity grid in United States is pretty dang dirty.”

While some manufacturers offer recycling programs, the sad fate of an e-reader at the end of its life is like a lot of other electronics. It often winds up in the hands of child in a poor country, where they can make money off the precious metals used inside. The toxic effects of this e-waste have been well documented. A book lying in a landfill is benign by comparison.

Because of the array of inputs and assumptions that must be considered when performing the eco-math of reading, Harrell says, any study claiming that the environmental cost of an e-reader equals “x” number of books is suspect.

But Daniel Goleman, an environmental journalist and author of “Ecological Intelligence,” says he has done just that.

“When doing the math you find common units that you compare,” he said. “It might be that they both require water. How many gallons? Or they both require energy. How many kilowatts?”

His analysis takes into account human factors, too, like disability caused by exposure to toxic parts. Goleman writes in his report “the adverse health impacts from making one e-reader are estimated to be 70 times greater than those from making a single book.”

Goleman’s rule of thumb: You must read 100 books on your e-reader for the environmental costs to break even. If an e-reader is upgraded before those 100 books are read, the environmental impacts will multiply.

“If you’re going to be an e-reader, you have to be dedicated about it,” Goleman said.

Of course, you can always commit yourself to making better use of your library card.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  April 22, 2010; 9:31 AM ET
 | Tags: Earth Day books vs. e-readers, Environmentally friendly books, print vs. electronic books  
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"Of course, you can always commit yourself to making better use of your library card."

How sad that this idea is offered only in the throwaway last line.

In truth, the most environmentally sound method of reading is the one that touches the most humanity. Reading books and then sharing them with others -- or getting books from the library -- is a truly communal way to read.

Passing on stories we've loved or learned from is not just a time-honored American pasttime; civilizations since the dawn of human communication have shared stories as a way of understanding life.

Reading connects people, and this is vitally important in an age when technology is doing its utmost to divide and isolate us. Online "social networks" have made us believe that we can sit alone in our homes and have a social life. What we're really doing is hiding out from real human contact.

So, come on, folks. Buy a book; read it; pass it on to a friend. Or go to the library, check out a book, and then discuss it with someone else who's read it. Be ecologically minded, socially interactive, and personally gratified all at the same time!

Posted by: haveaheart | April 22, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Great info I would also suggest using
Save Money, Save The Planet specializes in the recycling of textbooks, DVDs, CDs. Buying used textbooks not only saves you money, but cuts down on greenhouse gases caused by the manufacturing of new textbooks.
With you're not only saving trees, you are saving some green.

Posted by: greentextbooks | April 22, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Stephen Lowman makes an important contribution to the ongoing dialogue about the impact of e-books vs. paper books. The fact that it's illegal in 50 states and the District of Columbia to toss your e-reader into the trash (it contains hazardous waste---a lithium polymer battery) ought to tell us something.

Trees and paper on the other hand are a completely renewable resources. Mark Twain said there were three kinds of lies, "lies, damned lies, and statistics" While the statistics about trees used to produce books and newspaper are significant,the forest community plants over 1,700,000 trees everyday ---almost 1.5 billion a year---in the United States. Responsible foresty is essential to our planet and the responsible use of paper and print helps sustain these renewable resources.

Print on paper actually helps to grow trees and keep our forests from being sold for development. By connecting the dots between print and the private landowners who own almost 60 percent of U.S. woodlands it's wise to challenge the widely held belief that by using less paper, trees will be saved. You can find out more at:

Posted by: kerrystackpole | April 22, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

I pay about $450 a year for my unlimited bookshelf, hell, I even write if off on my taxes.
I'm a software engineer, guess what - you can't do word searches on paper books. You can't do word searches on an entire library of paper books.

I also have lots of paper books. I enjoy the feel of a paper book in my hands.

For you to claim that one is better than the other without context is just pathetic.

Posted by: barferio | April 22, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

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