by Chason Gordon
- Capitol Hill Times Magazine -
At quick glance, it would seem that e-books are easily greener than print books. e-readers can store thousands of titles and appear to avoid the various carbon steps and consequences of selling a paperback. But let’s not rush out and shut down every library and bookstore yet, because while there is a shortage of strong data, what is clear is that the environmental impact of e-books versus paperbacks depends as much on the consumer as it does the manufacturer.
If you work in the e-reader industry, business is good. Amazon sold over 4 million Kindles during the Christmas holidays, the Barnes and Noble Nook sold around 3 million since its launch, and Apple reigns supreme with over 55 million iPads sold to date, all of which carry Nook and Kindle apps, as well as featuring an in-house e-reader. Environmentally speaking, the question isn’t whether e-readers will replace print books, it’s whether they should.
For the past five years, the amount of print books produced annually has hovered between 3 and 4 billion, three-quarters of which wind up being sold. According to a recent first of its kind report prepared by The Green Press Initiative and The Book Industry Study Group, the book industry is responsible for harvesting approximately 30 million trees annually (or 1.45 million tons of paper), many of which are from endangered and old growth forests (the newspaper industry accounts 95 million trees, with The Capitol Hill Times being a very small part of that). It is estimated that only 5% to 10% of those books are printed on recycled paper, though the amount of publishers opting for recycled paper has been growing every year.
The lifecycle carbon impact of book publishing is primarily traced to tree harvesting, paper production, product distribution, and disposal. In the latter half of this process, books are often shipped to a consumer or picked up at a store, and approximately a quarter of those already in stock remain unsold and are shipped back to the publisher, where they are incinerated, thrown away, and in some cases, recycled. Through this and every step of the industry, GPI found that a book emits a net 4.01 kg (8.84 lbs) of carbon per book, for a total of 12.4 million metric tons of carbon each year. A similar study by the Cleantech Group places this number at 7.46 kg (16.44 lbs).
In a public relations sense, e-readers optically appear to easier on the environment, because we don’t immediately link them to the troubling image of mass deforestation. But the materials required to produce them – which are often hard to recycle – are by no means environmentally friendly in their harvesting and disposal. And though digital books don’t need to be shipped (saving fuel), the e-books are kept in data storage facilities, which require a great deal of power, adding to the ongoing electricity e-readers use (though they are multifunctional). The problem with assessing this collective impact is that with the exception of Apple (whose iPad is not a dedicated e-reader), most e-reader manufacturers have not released production information to the public, and what is out there is vague at best.
The raw materials used in most e-readers are a who’s who of precious minerals. They include gold (processors), lead (circuit boards), lithium (rechargeable batteries), tantalite, nickel, copper, and plastic which is obviously derived from oil. Some of these metals are often mined in war torn countries under less than ideal conditions. Apple does state in its environmental report for the iPad that the device is free of arsenic, mercury, lead, PVCs, and contains recyclable glass and aluminum. The company conducted its own lifecycle report and determined that through production, transport, use, and recycling, the estimated total carbon impact of the iPad is 105 kg (231 lbs). A report by Cleantech estimated the Kindle at 168 kg (370 lbs).Though many have questioned the results, these numbers help us grasp a basic mathematical comparison with print, in which the determining factor is user behavior.
Depending on which set of numbers one uses (and they range greatly), the general sense is that a person must read at least 40 to 50 books on an e-reader to offset its environmental impact in relation to print books. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris estimated that number could be as high as 100 when global warming is considered. There are few factors however which throw a fog over these numbers. So far, the rise in e-book sales has not necessarily correlated with a fall in print book sales (both have gone up, though this may tilt over time). It’s also worth noting that the rapid pace of technology means that consumers are trading up for newer e-readers to replace their old ones, but many of the previous estimates depend on users not changing devices for a few years. If they do, or change often, the environmental cost is much greater.
We are not at a point where any definitive conclusion can be reached with regards to human behavior, but certain practices can reduce the overall environmental impact. If one elects to enter the e-reader culture, they can reduce their carbon footprint (and feel superior to print readers) by voraciously reading at least fifty books a year, not changing e-readers, and no longer purchasing print books. Print readers may wage their own environmental argument by only getting books from the library they walked to. Whereas once people felt pressure to read plenty in order to be more knowledgeable, now they may do so just to save the environment. That seems like a good thing.