E-Readers vs. Old-Fashioned Books—Which Is More Eco Friendly?

E-Readers vs. Old-Fashioned Books—Which Is More Eco Friendly?

book stackA relatively new phenomenon is the E-Reader, be it Kindle, iPad, or a number of other new competitors coming into the marketplace.  When you think about it, these devices would seem to be more environmentally friendly than your typical paper and cardboard book, even a paperback.  Should we be buying our loved ones e-readers or traditional books as gifts?

There is a certain tactile value to “real” books, just feeling the paper, turning the pages.  I find that I miss this when using an e-reader.  But on the surface, the e-reader would seem to be much more green.  In fact, my colleague “Mr. Green” at Sierra Magazine recently explored this dilemma and came to a surprising conclusion, which I will reveal momentarily.

E-reader vs. paper book is a provocative question, one that could just as easily have been “do your prefer flying cars or conventional road going cars” a few short years ago.  The key to the answer is that basic tenet of sustainability, life cycle analysis.  We must consider not only the trees needed to make paper versus the manufacturing of electronics products, but the shipping costs, fuel, and ultimately, the energy needed to recycle these materials at the end of their days.  Not to mention, what ultimately happens to e-waste?   Where do the non-recyclable remains end up?

Mr. Green’s conclusion – as well as a recent New York Times piece on the same subject — was that unless you’re a fast and furious reader, the energy required to manufacture and then dispose of an e-reader is probably greater than what’s needed to make a traditional book.  If you’re reading 40 or more books per year on your e-reader, that would be the right choice.  But if you use it only occasionally, probably better to stick to a “regular” book.  This conclusion is reinforced by a study referenced on the website of TerraPass, a carbon offset business.  Unfortunately, the study itself is not available for publication but its authors said e-readers are the more environmentally responsible choice only if you are reading in excess of 23 books per year  (http://www.terrapass.com/blog/posts/digital-books-greener-than-real-books).

The New York  Times article also explored this subject, with a slightly different conclusion (http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/are-e-readers-greener-than-books/).  Using similar data, an outfit called Cleantech did a study which looked at the question sort of in reverse, saying if you were to read three books a month over four years, the e-reader would significantly outperform conventional paper books in carbon emitted.

Clearly, like many green subjects, ours is a young industry, and as such, definitive answers are hard to come by.  At least, subject to interpretation.  Either way, I hope that today’s generation will read more and watch less, be it through paper or electronic means.

Here’s the best answer, though:  go to the public library next time you are downtown.  Borrow three or four books, finish them all, then return ‘em next time you’re near the library.  This is truly the most sustainable way to read:  the good old fashioned public library.  At Sierra Club Green Home, we preach “reduce, reuse, and recycle” and library books can be read by dozens of people over their lifetime.  And once they are finally too dog-eared and beaten up to grace library shelves, they can be easily recycled since they are generally all paper (even the leather on deluxe bound editions can be recycled).

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