Is E-Reading Really Greener?
by Raz Godelnik
The emergence of e-book readers, starting with the release of Amazon’s Kindle in November 2007 and through the launch of Apple’s iPad in April 2010, is changing the book industry. No doubt about that. But is it also making reading more sustainable? Is it really greener to abandon the good old print-on-paper book for a cool gadget that holds hundreds of books without causing back strain?
With publishers’ and readers’ awareness of environmental issues growing and the market share of e-books, while still very small, growing very fast, the question arises for a growing number of publishers, authors, booksellers, and readers.
Intuitively it seems like a no-brainer—with e-book readers, no paper is required; no trees are cut down; no books need to be shipped and stored. Can it get any better than that?
Well, I wish it was that simple, but it isn’t. Just like physical books, e-books that are read on the Kindle, iPad, Nook, or any other device have their ecological footprint. The question is: which option, print or digital, has a smaller footprint?
To find that out, we need to use a life cycle analysis (LCA), which evaluates the ecological impact of any product, at every stage of its existence—in this case, from cutting down trees for paper to the day when the iPad and the Kindle will end their lives.
Toxic Waste Issues
Any analysis of e-readers must take a couple of significant factors into consideration:
Materials. Consumer electronics are notorious for containing a variety of toxic materials. Some companies are more transparent than others and make it relatively clear that their e-reader devices are free of toxic materials like PVC (Sony and Apple) and BFRs and mercury (Apple). But as Casey Harrell, an international campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, which monitors the environmental impact of consumer electronics, told the New York Times, e-readers remain something of an unknown variable.
“In terms of the Kindle or other similar e-book gadgets, I don’t know what chemicals are in or out,” Harrell said. “Companies will want to brag about their eco-credentials,” he points out, so if you don’t see any mention, the chemicals have probably not been eliminated.
Recycling. Electronic waste is becoming a growing environmental problem, and even though companies like Apple and Amazon have recycling programs in place, there’s a good chance e-readers will contribute to the electronic waste stream.
According to the EPA, Americans generated about 3 million tons of electronic waste in 2007. Out of all that waste, only 13.6 percent was recycled. The rest ended up in landfills or incinerators, even though, as the Electronic TakeBack Coalition explains, the hazardous chemicals in them can leach out of landfills into groundwater and streams.
And even the 13 percent that is supposedly recycled is not necessarily safe. According to the Electronic TakeBack Coalition, most recycling firms take the low road, exporting instead of recycling. From 50 to 80 percent of e-waste that is collected for recycling is shipped overseas for dismantling under unsafe conditions, harming people’s health, land, air, and water in developing countries in Asia and Africa.
About Energy Consumption and Unknowns
Three other issues are important as well.
First, a lot of necessary information on e-readers is missing.
When it comes to physical books we have all the information we need, but the situation with e-readers is getting more complicated, as most of the required information is not available. If you try to find out about the environmental impacts of Amazon’s Kindle or B&N’s Nook, good luck with that. Except for Apple, none of the companies that sell e-readers makes environmental data available.
When Joe Hutsko of the New York Times tried to learn more about the Kindle, he reported, “Phone calls and e-mail messages to Amazon inquiring about the materials in the popular Kindle device have thus far gone unanswered.”
Second, even as e-readers are becoming more energy-efficient (for example, Amazon’s Kindle and B&N’s Nook use E Ink technology, which is significantly more power-efficient than an LCD screen), this is not the full story. E-readers are also part of a wave of mobile devices that increasingly depend on the Internet and data centers to deliver hosted services and digital content, and hence will contribute to a rapid growth in energy consumption and carbon emissions associated with so-called cloud computing over the coming years.
Third, as we’ll see, even the LCA, thorough as it can get, leaves some territories unexplored, including social implications. Could we say e-books are greener if, for example, we find out they’re performing better on the life cycle assessment, but at the same time we learn that they’re manufactured in sweatshops where working conditions are deplorable?
Life Cycle Consequences
But LCA is still the best tool we’ve got, so let’s see what we can learn from it, using information provided by Apple on its iPad. (There was one attempt to do LCA for the Kindle, but I found it not valid due to lack of information.)
Recently Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris presented their life cycle assessment comparing Apple’s iPad to physical books in a New York Times op-ed piece.
Using the available information and looking at the iPad only as an e-reader—putting aside all the other functions it has—their conclusion regarding the breakeven point was, “When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books.” In other words, you need to replace a purchase of at least 100 physical books with 100 books on your iPad to make it a greener option from a carbon footprint standpoint.
I think the breakeven point is lower. When I compared the carbon footprint of the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G Model provided by Apple (130 kg CO2) with the carbon footprint of an average physical book (7.46 kg CO2, as provided by Cleantech report), I found a breakeven point of 17.4 books, meaning that in terms of carbon footprint, the iPad becomes a more environmental friendly alternative option for book reading once its user reads the 18th book on it.
But as Goleman and Norris show, the carbon footprint is just one part of the comparison. With respect to fossil fuels, water use, and mineral consumption, one e-reader has as much impact as 40–50 print-on-paper books. And with respect to human health consequences, they claim the figure is somewhere between 50 and 100 books.
The implications of the breakeven point depend on two elements—how many years a consumer will use an e-reader before switching to a newer one, and how many books the consumer reads. For a bookworm who plans to keep using an e-reader for couple of years, it may actually become a greener option. But someone who (like most Americans) reads only six to seven books a year and switches to a newer e-reader version within three to four years may not be going green.
We also have to remember that physical books can improve their ecological footprint, and they are slowly doing that. We see increasing use of recycled and FSC-certified paper, as well as greater adoption of sustainable practices in the industry. Although there’s still much to be done, progress in the last couple of years has been impressive, and it seems likely to continue as publishers identify going green not only as beneficial to the environment, but also as beneficial to business.
We are, of course, only on the first part of a long journey, and I believe e-readers will get more eco-friendly in time. The future of the book industry will probably include “greener” versions of both physical and electronic books. And, with more pressure from consumers, companies may not only start revealing all the information about their e-readers, but actually compete on which one has the greenest e-reader to offer.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris. Founded in 2007, Eco-Libris is a green company working with publishers, authors, bookstores, and book lovers worldwide to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. For more information, go to ecolibris.net.