Making books kills trees. In fact, every year, 25 million trees are massacred for our book-reading pleasure. It might even be 30. And that’s just in the US. So you might think that e-books and e-readers would be the greener choice. And you would be wrong.
Environmental impact. It’s about more than trees. It’s about everything that happens in making, using and disposing of any object, blue jeans to jelly beans. And when the beans have all been counted, books come out ahead.
First, there is material extraction: collecting the stuff to make the object. According to a recent article in The New York Times, making one e-reader takes 33 pounds of minerals. This includes the rare mineral columbite-tantalite used in many electronics, and whose mining in eastern Congo has been funding an ugly war. A physical book requires 2/3 pound of minerals (mostly gravel for the roads it gets shipped on). It takes 79 gallons of water to make an e-reader; a book needs only 2.
Then there is energy use and CO2 production. All along the supply chain, from extraction to manufacture, to shipping, fossil fuels get consumed and CO2 wafts into the atmosphere. Here, an e-reader is again the hog, using up 100 killowatt hours of energy, pumping out 60 pounds of CO2. Making a book takes only 2 killowatt hours and its greenhouse gas emissions are 100 times fewer.
The negative human health impacts of an e-book are 70 times worse than a book.
Then of course there are the environmental impacts once you enter the picture. Do you drive to the store? Walk? Order online then wait for the UPS guy? What about the packaging? (All that needs to be factored in, too: from extraction to production to shipping to purchase to disposal).
If you read a book with an electric light, you’re sucking up more energy than it takes to charge an e-reader. So here, the e-reader wins, unless you read by daylight only, sitting in your comfy chair by the window or outside, now that it’s spring.
And what about when you’re finished? Electronics’ recycling is spotty at best, and all too often, the toxins end up harming people in developing countries who earn a little money by dismantling parts. A book in a landfill lets go of its carbon—so a little more CO2 into the air. But compared to toxic waste, I’ll take it.
So it all comes down to this. In terms of environmental impact, 1 e-reader equals about 100 books. And you may already have been thinking, but wait, an e-reader can hold a couple hundred books. So that’s a win for an e-reader.
And here, you would be right. Except for three small things.
Thing One: Server Farms. The server farms needed to store and download e-books suck up more energy than I can even get my head around. To run them, to cool them, and to continually expand them. Every device we own is connected to the whole system of devices and electrical grids. And the internet in general, according to an article in NowPublic, is the “fastest growing source of atmospheric CO2.” Google alone has 1,000,000 servers.
Thing Two: Planned Obsolescence. Gonna hold on to that Kindle or iPad for twenty years? At best, we hang on to gadgets for two or three, then chuck ‘em for an upgrade or something entirely new. Instead of reducing, reusing and recycyling, we just keep buying more and more stuff. Did your iPad replace all your other gadgets, or just get added to the pile? How many e-readers will you have owned by the time my book library gets carted to the landfill? I have books dating back to the 1860s. And with each new gadget upgrade, the whole accounting begins again: extraction, manufacturing, shipping, purchasing, using, disposing. Fossil fuel use, CO2 production, toxic byproducts.
Thing Three: Sharing. The life-cycle analysis in the NYT assumes one book, one human reader. But books can be shared. I can give a book away. I can lend it to a friend. I can resell a book. A single book can have a thousand readers. I call that scalable in the friendliest sort of way. Try sending an e-book to a friend.
So I’ll conclude as the article in the Times does.
Slow Book Rule #4: The greenest way to read a book is to walk to your local library.