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The e-reader versus the paperback book: which is better?

The different environmental impacts of physical books and electronic books is a topic of hot debate. Questions of longevity, sustainability, disposal and energy consumption all play a part in determining which form is the eco-friendliest. Ever since the first few e-readers were released – such as the Sony Librie in 2004, Sony Reader in 2006, and the Amazon Kindle in 2007 – people have rushed to buy these devices for their ability to store vast quantities of books on a single device, to take up far less space and resources than traditional book formats and to offer books at cheaper prices. 

On the surface, this makes e-readers seem like a greener, and more convenient, alternative. Although this is not an exact science and more research needs to be conducted to completely fill in the blanks, I will try to get to the bottom of which one is the best for the planet and which form we should gravitate toward if we want to be more eco-conscious.

In terms of materials, on the surface it appears a no-brainer. Books are made from the wood from trees which is a renewable and natural resource, whereas e-reader devices such as Kindles consist of plastic, metal and rubber. Although in 2008 alone the publishing industry was responsible for the harvest of nearly 125 million trees, most of the paper used to create books come from trees specifically planted to be harvested for this purpose and therefore do not majorly eat into the environment. The carbon footprint left from extracting the raw materials needed for e-readers is extremely high, as well as the footprint left from transporting these materials to the plants for processing. A study by the New York Times discovered that creating just one e-reader requires the extraction of 33lb of minerals. On top of that, 79 gallons of water and 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels are needed to create the e-reader itself, which roughly equals 66lb of CO2 (roughly 30kg). David Reay, a British academic and carbon management expert, once calculated that each paper book produced in the UK accounts for the creation of only 3kg of CO2, a much lower amount.

In terms of materials required for creation and of disposal, paper books are friendlier to the environment

However, the problem with creating physical books is that once they are printed and distributed, mistakes cannot be corrected. It was discovered that 80,000 copies of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom in the first UK print run contained typographical errors, resulting in said 80,000 books being destroyed – a massive and pointless waste. If a mistake were found within an e-book, theoretically it could be corrected easily and updated online without such wastage.

Judging which format of book produces the greatest quantity of total carbon through external factors is incredibly complex. For paper books, we must consider the fuel used for every journey to and from a bookstore and the fuel used for any book deliveries. If you order a book online and then have it shipped across the world to your door, that creates roughly the same pollution as creating the book in the first place. On the other hand, e-readers are a one-time delivery (unless you constantly upgrade to the latest model) and do not require any further fuel once it is within your possession. But with e-readers come hidden costs – electricity is needed to store files, charge the batteries and power the screen. Paper books require no such energy when they are in use, unless of course you switch on the lamp to read at night. Large amounts of electricity are needed to transmit digital files across vast distances, or even to power Amazon and Apple’s data centres indefinitely.

The level of consumerism that you exercise must determine which format is best for you

Technology is always evolving, meaning that companies will always continue to reinvent the e-reader in order to maintain a competitive edge. This leads to obsolete models of e-readers that need to be disposed of without ever being used or bought. Paper books, in contrast, largely remain the same in format and design, and will not become obsolete so quickly. A case could be made that books gain in value as they mature, stored safely in an antique bookstore or on your shelf, whereas e-readers quickly devalue. If an old e-reader needs to be disposed of, recycling is a lot less environmentally friendly. Often workers from lower-income countries have to dismantle the products by hand, exposing them to a range of toxic chemicals. E-readers need to be properly and safely recycled in order not to cause damage to the atmosphere and the people in contact with them. For paper books, they can be recycled more easily into pulp with less immediate damage to people or the environment. Yet, if they find themselves on a landfill, decomposition generates double the global warming emissions as its initial manufacture. It is clear that paper books are the better option here, although both formats require a safe and responsible disposal.

It would seem that in terms of materials required for creation and of disposal, paper books are friendlier to the environment. They are made from a more easily renewable source and are less toxic when recycled. Paper books also require little to no electricity when in use, unlike e-readers which constantly need energy in order to function. Yet, it is possible for e-readers to triumph over paper books. This can be achieved only if the e-reader is used to its fullest capacity. If the e-reader is used to download a minimum of 20 books during its lifetime, the environmental impact is actually less than if the 20 books had been read in print. Therefore – what I have been building up to this entire article – I have concluded that each person’s individual reading habits determines whether paper books or e-readers are the best for the environment. If you are an avid reader or book fanatic, likely to read a catalogue of books in a short space of time, buy an e-reader. If you casually read but only sporadically, buy paper books. The level of consumerism that you exercise must determine which format is best for you and ultimately, Mother Earth.

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