Those who know me know I try to be environmentally friendly whenever possible. They also know I love a good book.
Partially because of my love for both reading and the environment, my husband and I recently acquired a Kindle, which we do a lot of our daily reading on now.
I like the convenience of my Kindle, but I also like the idea that it could be more environmentally friendly because I’m downloading my book rather than buying something that had to be fabricated and shipped across the country.
I figured over time, the number of books I would read without needing them printed out would outweigh the environmental impact of creating my little electronic reader. It’s always important to reduce what you consume — that’s why it’s first in the catchy phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle” — and this seemed like a good way to reduce my consumption.
I thought by purchasing an e-reader I would be helping the environment, though I must admit I never really looked into it before making my purchase.
Even though I was fairly convinced when I bought my Kindle that it was a better choice for the environment, I’ve more recently begun to question my purchase.
There are a lot of factors that go into figuring out the environmental impact of anything, including regular paper books and e-book readers.
For example, it takes energy to cut down and process a tree into paper, and then more energy to print text on the paper and bind it into a book. There’s also the energy consumed transporting the book to consider, and if you want to get really technical, you could consider the energy used to power the book store and my car when I drive over to get a book.
Every step of the way, carbon is being released into the atmosphere, along with other problematic substances.
It also takes energy to power the servers that host all the e-books my Kindle has access to; energy to power the communication cables that help connect my Kindle to the servers; even energy to power my own home network and my Kindle.
Lots of people received or gave e-readers as gifts for the holidays and might be wondering the same thing as me: are e-readers really any better for the environment than regular books?
After all, books can and often do have very lengthy lifetimes — much longer than human lifetimes. A single book could be read hundreds, even thousands of times, greatly reducing its carbon impact per read.
As I found out, unfortunately, not a lot of scientific research has been done on this topic and companies like Amazon are reluctant to share specific information about how much energy is used for various tasks like delivering e-books to Kindles, so there is no cut-and-dry answer.
However, some people have been doing studies, and others have put together estimations using what numbers and statistics are available. Here is what I’ve found out:
A report by the Cleantech Group estimates a single physical book costs about 7.46 kilograms of released carbon during its lifetime. By comparison, a Kindle costs about 168 kilograms during it’s life.
These estimations include things like manufacturing, transport and energy use. The Kindle obviously uses far more carbon than a single book, but when compared to how many books a person might read on a Kindle, the Cleantech Group estimates the Kindle could save 1,000-26,000 kilograms of carbon over its lifetime, compared to reading the same books in paper format.
The Cleantech Group estimates that in order for a Kindle to “break even” — be more eco-friendly than reading physical books — it must replace 22.5 physical books. So by their estimates, if you use an e-reader to read 23 books that you would have otherwise read in paper format, you might have saved some carbon emissions, and every book after that is saving even more.
However, it doesn’t seem to me like it’s as simple as that: for example, if you buy only used books you could argue your carbon emissions are much lower.
Master’s candidate Greg Kozak studied the carbon emissions of physical textbooks vs. e-book textbooks in 2003. He found that e-books were four times more carbon efficient than regular textbooks. So at least in an academic setting, where new versions of textbooks are coming out every few years, it seems like it might be pretty clear that e-books are environmentally superior.
Other mathematical calculations done by journalists, advice columnists and bloggers have shown that it can take a lot more energy to read printed things versus electronic text.
One person calculated it could take 10 times more energy to print out a 100-page document and read it than it would take to read it on your computer screen.
I’ve wondered if I should print out my online class research papers so I don’t keep my computer on to read them, but the answer to that idea appears to be a strong “no.”
The largest carbon impact from e-readers is the initial manufacturing process. That means the longer you keep your e-reader, the more you shrink it’s carbon footprint, at least in per-book terms.
For now, even though there isn’t scientific consensus, I think I’ll stick with my Kindle.
Amanda's Animal Fact of the Week
Beavers can remain underwater for 15 minutes without surfacing and have a set of transparent eyelids that function much like goggles.