E-Books vs. Books: The Green Debate

26 Aug

Original image on NYTimes.com

I always have been a book person. I’ve been collecting them since I was three, from the Sesame Street how-to-count books to Maurice by E.M. Forster. I love the feel of books, the smell of them, everything about them. Also, vainly enough, I like the way books look on shelves; I have a tendency to arrange them by color. There’s just nothing like a book!

Recently, I also received a Nook, which has about seven books on it right now. I was really excited when I first flicked on the switch, thinking about how many books this can hold and how many trees I’ll save! Then the battery died about six or seven months ago. I haven’t charged it since and have bought several physical books in the meantime. Spotting my long-dead Nook on the shelf the other day, I started wondering how my book-buying habits really were impacting the environment. Had I really saved a tree in those seven books?

So which is greener? The physical book or the eBook? Do we even care which is greener, or is it all about the aesthetic of a book? Apparently there is much debate over this!

Let’s take this logically first. A physical book will have paper from a paper mill, inks (more than likely not soy), and delivery by planes and vehicles. That has to amount to quite the carbon footprint. On the other hand, while e-books do not require paper, the readers tend to be made of plastic, and the top companies come out with new versions at least once a year, sometimes more. I may not be an environmentalist, but I know plastic does not decompose in landfills. Ebooks also require electricity, whether you run them on the computer or via an e-reader that needs to be charged regularly.

I decided to do a little research.

Since 2007, when Amazon first released its Kindle, the e-reader in general has gone through many changes. The Kindle has 5 versions so far. The Nook comes in at 4 versions. The Kobo made it through 3; we’ll have to wait to see how this one turns out with the Borders issue. The iPad is preparing for its second. Bookeen has 3 versions. Sony has 8-9 (its first was released in 2004). All of this is in the last 4 years! Let’s say you’re a tech-person or you just need the latest version that works so much better, this amounts to quite a few e-readers thrown out each year.

Electricity wise? The eReader actually is not that bad with electricity. Most will survive for days or a couple of weeks on a single charge. It’s not like keeping up with your iPhone, which dies nearly every day.

Now the book. A couple of years ago, Cleantech performed a thorough study on books. According to the New York Times article “Are E-Readers Greener Than Books?”:

“The Cleantech study concluded that purchasing three e-books per month for four years produces roughly 168 kilograms of CO2 throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle, compared to the estimated 1,074 kilograms of CO2 produced by the same number of printed books.”

This is taking into account carbon from the production plants and transportation, as well as waste water. Emma Ritch, of San Francisco-based Cleantech Group, also pointed out books not sold are often incinerated, thrown out, or recycled, which also adds to the carbon footprint and environmental impact.

Or even take for example an editor’s worst nightmare. Do you recall Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which came out not long ago? Last year, some 80,000 copies were pulped due to a “serious” editorial error. That’s very expensive! Not to mention, after a fix or two, all 80,000 books presumably had to be replaced on the market, which doubles the footprint of this particular book.

So far, there have only been a small number of studies examining the environmental impact of the book versus the eBook. Generally, there is consensus the e-reader is only greener if one is an avid reader. It takes about 20 books on an e-reader to equal a book, provided the book is brand new and is never passed on.

In the end, I’m not as green as I had hoped! With all seven of my books, it turns out my e-reader is not very green. I should probably up my eBook-to-book ratio, but it’s going to take a while. Like many around the world, I’m stuck on the aesthetic of books and cannot seem to part with them completely just yet, even for the environment.

Want to read more? Here are the sources for this post:





And, in case you want to learn how to maximize your “greenness” with the e-reader:




10 Responses to “E-Books vs. Books: The Green Debate”

  1. Wolf Hoelscher August 29, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Great post, Ana, on a very complicated issue. I tried to tackle it myself on my blog. In addition to the waste produced by the ridiculous returns agreement most big publishers have with bookstores, consider also the environmental cost of new editions. Think of all the travel guides that need updates each year. With an e-book, you can keep the content current and provide updates quickly without going to the paper mill.

  2. David Kanter (@dmkanter) September 16, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Great post! a couple thoughts – it’s too bad that Amazon won’t publish their numbers on materials used, etc… they should be a lot more transparent.

    Also, I’d love to believe that 2 books/month replaces the kindle’s footprint, but we also need to consider that Amazon and most retailers will try to entice us with the latest models (planned obsolesce) . Being an early adopter myself it will be very hard to not upgrade, but if I can make my current kindle last as long as possible 3-4 years, that would be the best bet.

  3. anastasiawraight September 16, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    Thanks! I am constantly debating on whether or not I should buy a book as an e-book or physical book. I’m finding that some books I want to read are not available as e-books and that some are less expensive as physical books (for the latter, take Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which is $12.99 on Nook or $9.99 or cheaper as a physical book). Then, how do I offset that with wanting to become more environmentally responsible? It’s complicated!

  4. Sammy October 31, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    Here some info on eReader CO2 emisssion that helps to complete the picture:

    E Ink vs LCD Why E Ink eReader is Best

  5. e publishing December 12, 2011 at 3:55 am #

    I like the craze or passion you have on books 🙂 Especially when you say “I like the way books look on shelves”. A very powerful thought and research.

  6. suezeeknits March 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    I love the feel of a paperback book. I always have and always will I imagine. I do download eBooks on my iPad. I like this because it is always with me anyway so one less thing to haul around. You can have more than 1 book going at a time and it’s all neatly in the iPad, Nook or whatever device you use.

  7. thethingaboutjoan April 25, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    So funny — my husband and I were just having a debate on this very subject over the weekend (Earth Day weekend, no less!). He’s convinced an iPad is the key to all things, but I like having a “book”-book in my hand. I think my position keeps weakening, though. The ease and convenience of an e-reader clearly surpasses juggling my worn paperbacks, and as my library continues to add more digital titles that I can borrow for a specified time limit (no more fines!), I’ve almost caved to embracing the technology.

    Great post!

  8. MediaTantrik June 5, 2012 at 1:57 am #

    Reblogged this on mediatantra and commented:
    I suppose e-books are more eco-friendly the printed books.

  9. alphabetstory June 18, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Reblogged this on Alphabet Story.

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