If you’re only comparing an e-book to a printed book the e-book comes out on top, environmentally speaking. But to do a true comparison you need to factor in the e-reader too. And by e-reader that can mean a Kindle, Kobo, iPad or tablet.
I found a very thorough analysis comparing e-books and printed books written by Nick Moran, an editor with the literature review site The Millions. After reading it I came to the conclusion that the eco-footprint of an e-reader has as much to do with its owner as it does the device itself. Here’s why…
The carbon footprint of a book includes production of the paper, printing, and shipping to stores. For an e-book you need to include the energy consumed while you read the book, but you also need to consider all that goes into creating the e-reader required to read the e-book in the first place. When all of this is factored in, the average carbon footprint of an e-book is 200 to 250 times that of a printed book.
The ratio gets even worse when there are multiple e-readers in a household, upwards of 650 times worse when compared to the carbon footprint on a home library where you can have more than one family member reading the same copy of a book.
If you hang onto your e-reader for five years or longer it all evens out. But the problem is people tend to upgrade devices every two years.
So in the end, the answer is really that an e-reader can be very eco-friendly. It’s all in how you use it. Do you plan to keep it for a good long time? Do you plan to give it away to someone who will continue to use it if you’re dying to upgrade, or will it get stuffed in a drawer? Are you a voracious reader? If you read a tonne of books (way above the average 6.5 books a year) then the equation is different for you anyway. Do you share an e-reader in your house? Have you switched any subscriptions (magazines, newspapers) to electronic versions? How you answer these questions will determine if your e-reader is a better environmental choice.
If you’re a reader, by far the greenest route is your public library. Remember to check there first for the next book you’d like to read. You can also borrow e-books from the public library.
Share your books among family and friends, borrow books when possible and be sure to cart any unloved books off to one of the local second hand book stores for someone else to enjoy.