It seems like a no-brainer- eReaders don’t use any paper to produce their books. Real physical books use a lot of paper to produce books. Therefore, eReaders must be more environmentally friendly, right? It turns out the answer is: it depends. There are several more factors involved in both the production of physical books and the production of eReaders that must be considered before you can make a final verdict about which reading method is more environmentally friendly in regards to your reading habits.
Traditional paper books require massive amounts of paper to produce (obviously). In fact, it takes over 24 trees to make just one ton of paper for book production, and most of those books are destroyed before they ever reach the shelves. In 2008, the book and newsprint industry in the United States alone destroyed over 125 million trees. The books that don’t sell at the bookstore are then returned to the publisher and burned or recycled. Either way, it’s a massive waste of paper. Ereaders don’t have this problem.
Water and Fossil Fuels
It takes over seven gallons of water to produce one regularly sized printed book. The water doesn’t just disappear, either- it comes out of the other end of the production cycle as wastewater that is non-potable. Producing a regularly sized digital book requires only 2 cups of water. Manufacturing an eReader requires 79 gallons of water initially, but that is offset by the water saved when you purchase a digital book instead of a regular book. Traditional books also require fossil fuels to transport to the bookstore. Ereaders also require transportation, but not on the same scale as physical books.
Cleantech, an environmental consulting firm, states that the production of one traditional book creates 7.5 kg of carbon dioxide. The iPad creates 130 kg of carbon dioxide, and the Kindle creates 168 kg. A reader would need to download around 20 books instead of purchasing them in order to offset the carbon dioxide emissions created by their eReader. Of course, you also need to add on the power consumed during the use of an eReader, although this is comparatively small.
Traditional books and eReaders both have environmental costs when it comes to production, just like any other facet of modern consumption. Which option is more environmentally friendly? It depends on what kind of reader you happen to be. If you only get your books from the library, you are participating in the most environmentally friendly mode of reading. If you only shop at second hand bookstores and then pass the books on when you’re done with them, that is also more environmentally friendly than using an eReader. However, if you purchase new books on a regular basis, then an eReader is more environmentally friendly than what you’re currently doing. You could offset the environmental effects of your eReader within one year, according to the New York Times. When you upgrade to a new device, don’t forget to recycle it!