Bookshelves towering floor to ceiling filled with weighty tomes, or one book-sized device holding hundreds of "books" in electronic form — which one of these options for the voracious reader creates the least damaging environmental footprint?
There is no easy answer to the question, dependent as it is on personal environmental values and a reader's reading habits. E-readers tend to be popular, not only amongst voracious readers but also amongst occasional readers, who might previously have only owned a handful of books, complicating the question further.
Regardless, more can be done to improve the environmental performance of both e-reader and paper publications.
The environmental consequences of pulp and paper manufacturing are well documented, even though the worst excesses are now corrected. But once the paper is made and the book published, at least there are no significant further negative impacts and the carbon is captured.
There are higher environmental costs involved in manufacturing an e-reader unit, compared to a unit of paper, and there are also on-going operational effects. However, one e-reader can hold any number of eBooks, newspapers and magazines — which means that e-reader users purchase fewer printed publications.
Trying to environmentally promote or denigrate — depending on your point of view — one form of reading over another is inevitably controversial, and perhaps futile. It is not just about numbers, such as tonnes of CO₂, raw materials and waste, but also about human behaviour and interpretation of the impacts.
For example, is the logging of (mostly plantation) trees of greater environmental significance than the extraction of limited resources of rare earth metals? Is it more important to consider the greenhouse effect of CO₂ emissions rather than the health effects of air and water quality? These are just a few of the many environmental issues involved.
Much of the discussion about e-readers vs. paper books has taken place with the best of intentions and, indeed, makes the most of available information. But the fact remains that reliable information at the required scale (both micro and macro) is not available, and probably never will be because of the cost of acquiring that information in light of how quickly it becomes redundant.
The few areas where commentators are in agreement are that:
e-readers will continue to increase their share of human reading needs, regardless of environmental considerations — few people will make purchases based on environmental credentials
Paper-based reading will continue to meet a significant proportion of reading needs
The more ebooks read on a single e-reader, the greater the potential offset vs. paper books. Depending on who you believe and what is being compared, that might be 20-100 paper books for equivalent CO2 emissions, or 40-70 paper books taking into account other impacts, like fuel, water, minerals and human health. But that does not mean either has an impact that is good — both can improve
The lowest long-term environmental impact remains sharing paper books, buying second-hand books and borrowing books from a library (provided you catch public transport there). While a feel-good option, this is an unlikely game changer.
Inevitably, the e-reader and paper books (both including newspapers and magazines) have their environmental pluses and minuses. These cover the cradle-to-grave elements: sourcing and extraction of raw material sources; processing materials and manufacturing products (including by-products and disposal); distribution and retailing; end user uses (including maintenance and replacement); disposal; and transport at all stages.
Each of these elements has within it considerations of sustainability, energy consumption (source of fuel and production of emissions), health and environmental hazards, air and water pollution and waste disposal.
Then, there are further individual human behaviour variables, such as how the e-reader or paper book is used, frequency of use, frequency of replacement (including planned obsolescence) and recycling/solid waste disposal.
For example, any environmental benefits arising from using an e-reader and not buying paper books are likely to vanish if, like many of us, people give in to the temptation to update their reading device every year or two — long before it stops working.
A full Life Cycle Analysis of books versus e-readers might be desirable, but is difficult and potentially misleading. These analyses rely on averages or a range of performance inputs and outputs. For the consumer, it is difficult to evaluate all the issues, let alone compare the different approaches to reading.
The future will have both e-readers and paper publications. Rather than comparing one with the other for the "best" environmental credentials, it would be better to aim at improving the environmental performance of each.
We should require manufacturers to strive for the smallest possible footprint in a sustainable cradle-to-grave operating environment. If manufacturers transparently demonstrate they are meeting this objective, then consumers have the option to prefer their products. Responsible environmental behaviour by consumers is a further critical element in maintaining a sustainable reading environment.
Nonetheless, sharing a book appears to be the best way to ensure you minimise the impact of your reading habits.
This article was written with the assistance of Dr Bruce Allender, microscopist and environmental specialist at Covey Consulting.
Tom Rainey does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.