Ungreen Facts about e-Reading Devices

e waste e-readers, kindle, iPad, booksIt’s estimated that the environmental impact of a single “eReader” (Kindle, iPad…) equals that of 100 books. 

Whether the motivation is to truly improve environmental performance, or simply garner positive press, seems every business is jumping on the low carbon bandwagon. Nowhere is exempt from the pressure to green up, not even the beleaguered (and beloved) book industry.

Three years ago, a group called the Book Industry Environmental Council (BIEC) set environmental targets for the American book business, aiming to reduce its baseline carbon footprint by 20 percent in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. The plan was hatched during the infancy of eBooks: Kindle had been around just over a year.

BIEC goals seem attainable. Technological advances slashed the volume of in-house printing.  Editors move towards a paperless workflow. Publishers began to reassess traditional processes of creating, transporting, and storing books. The resultant enviro-friendly efficiencies could be replicated worldwide.

Problem is no one foresaw the popularity of eBooks. Last year, Amazon was selling one million Kindles a week. Apple hawked 40 million iPads. And those are just two brands in the digital readers aisle in the world’s virtual tech store.

Currently, eBooks account for 31% of America’s book sales.

The trend toward digitization is undeniable and the upside is real.  Profit margins are healthy, we can access virtually any book from anywhere, and it’s easier than ever for writers to get published.

But is technology really greening up the industry? Is elimination of the printed book an ecologically responsible goal? In an article on TheMillions.com, writer Nick Moran goes down the rabbit hole to chase some answers.

It’s estimated that the environmental impact of a single “eReader” (Kindle, iPad, et al) equals that of 100 books. First-world households frequently possess multiple devices, so a family’s annual carbon emissions could be 600-750% higher than if they just tapped into the town library.

Moran argues that the traditional paper route is a reader’s better green choice, and offers these sustainable suggestions:

  • Borrow books, or purchase them secondhand.
  • Buy books printed on recycled paper.
  • Support ecologically conscientious booksellers.
  • Resist the urge to purchase the next hot technology.
  • Use your eReader until it no longer works, and then recycle it responsibly.
  • Got an eReader you don’t use? Sell it (and offset another’s new purchase) or donate to charity.

Digital publishing is here to stay, and it is challenging green goals of the book industry and individual readers.  Can sustainable printing continue to step up? How best to improve the cradle-to-grave lifecycle of eReading devices?

The matter remains an open book.

Image of e-reader and books from Shutterstock

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9 thoughts on “Ungreen Facts about e-Reading Devices”

  1. organarchi says:

    I notice an interesting claim in your article: “It’s estimated that the environmental impact of a single “eReader” (Kindle, iPad, et al) equals that of 100 books”. This doesn’t really match any of the more common estimates (such as CleanTech’s for example), could you provide a source for this claim please? Many thanks.

  2. Laurie Balbo’s article is a much-needed eye-opener. The spin that the digital revolution is inherently greener than lower technologies is a prevalent and mistaken notion. The amount of “throughput” needed to produce computers and other high technologies is immense and is part of a technology/socioeconomic/environmental interface that requires much more investigation. Pending such research, environmentalists would do well to promote a “go-slow” approach to the glitzy, high-tech consumer products that are vigorously promoted.

  3. Laurie Balbo says:

    Totally agree. Emailing me a file of War and Peace is less energy intensive than printing and shipping me that brick of a book.

    It’s that full lifecycle aspect that opens Pandora’s box. Creating my Kindle, as example, and then the PC or smartphone that I might order/receive the file on, shipping those devices to me, powering them up, and ultimately disposing of them chews up more resources than printing/shipping a biodegrable bestseller.

    You can get wiggy and stretch it to look at user lifestule too: I’m near-hippie in my daily life, but frequent flying (and carry-on weight limits)is what prompted my ereader purchase. What color would be opposite of green? That would be flying.

    The biggest challenge with carbon footprinting is agreeing boundaries for the exercise.

    Really appreciate the great comments. Truly shows the complexity of the issue.

  4. George Lewis says:

    Buying printed books might have BEEN greener when we had book stores we could walk to… but if you start calculating all the costs there are in delivering printed books from places like Amazon – in comparison to having them sent digitally… there is NO comparison on which will be greener – as print books (new or used) become more scarce.

    I guess than if we had to choose one or the other, you would be right, but we don’t live in that world any more… although I agree that I myself prefer standard books… Maybe a compromise will be the print-on-demand (which I personally think will eventually be available as vending machines – if they haven’t come-up with them already).

  5. Laurie Balbo says:

    Hold your horses, George. Nothing negative about ereaders stated here. A quick reread confirms I note improvements they bring to the market (and to ereaders like me). I also list tips to keep both print and digi material from landfills.

    Traditional publishing has significantly stepped up it’s green-game. Evolving tech developments now invite a rethink of the industry’s sustainability gameplan.

    A more defined argument is put forward in the referenced source article in The Millions: but any way you slice it, it’s less energy/emission intensive to get a print book in your hand than it is to get you an ereader with a digital book. Has nothing to do with tree-chopping.

  6. George Lewis says:

    It’s amazing… when something really positive arrives to help us move away from cutting trees to make books, someone has to find something negative – just to attract readers with a controversial headline.

    The development and adoption of ereaders is GREAT and will only get better as the technology keeps improving. Why not do your part to encourage people to do their part to donate books to libraries etc… stop buying paper books and encourage moving to digital books instead.

    Let’s be positive when something good like this is happening!

  7. Gordon James says:

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  8. Laurie Balbo says:

    Beth – I’d add that calculation of exact carbon emissions relative to each pathway to getting a “book” in readers’ hands is currently impossible: global production lines offer too many variants in where the process starts and ends, where and how materials are sourced, and how the items are utlimately disposed of.

    Similarly, how can we really know how many books the average reader reads – or what their usage motiviation is for buying any product?

    But missing this level of detail doesn’t preclude a conclusion based on generalities (and common sense): digital devices are positive advances on many fronts, but to claim they are a step forward in sustainability is just silly.

    Thanks for the great comment!

  9. Beth Kempton says:

    This article provide an important perspective, but in addition to the first world households that have multiple divices, there are a growing number of peole who are reading e-books on only their primary device, whatever that may be (phone, tablet, computer, etc).

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