Are E-Books Saving the Environment One Book at A Time?

Can you hear the lament of nostalgia? Some would say e-books are killing the indie bookstores and the beat-nik culture that embraced it so many years ago. And the closing of mega-box bookstores show their visible scars on urban sprawl — vacant Border’s blot the four corners of my hometown.

What are ebooks doing to the environment?

The closings of these stores and the scattering of the people who congregated them could be a reflection of a recovering economy, but it’s more a sign of changing times.

But what are ebooks doing to the environment? We are increasingly a more environmentally-conscious people, and technology is reflecting this with the rise of e-books and their e-readers. We have come to realize and embrace the printed book is a significant waste of energy, water and paper.

Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Nancy Davis Kho tells us the “National Resources Defense Council estimates the U.S. publishing industry uses more than 1.5 million metric tons of paper each year.” An earlier study estimates that each printed book produces 8.85 pounds of carbon dioxide. So when we think about the environmental impact of e-books, part of the answer is simple. There are no trees used in the production of an e-book. So they do, in fact, save the environment.

But that’s where the easy answer stops, because the evidence is sketchy that e-readers have a lower carbon impact. Recently, however, The Cleentech Group found Kindles fully offset its carbon emissions if users read a ton — more than 22 e-books a year, and additional years of use result in net carbon savings equivalent to and average of 168 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Raz Godelink, CEO of Eco-Libris, says e-books can be a greener option if people read more and do not upgrade their e-reader devices often.

“A New York Times analysis seems to support Raz’s conclusion and it says that an e-reader can offset around 40 books,” Akhila Vijayaraghavan of Triple Pundit tells us. “Therefore, if you replace five books a year, it will take around eight years before you’ve offset your carbon footprint.”

So what will become of the indie bookstores, and those congregating at what was once, Seattle’s Best in Border’s? They will adapt. Perhaps, the e-book will spawn new communities and book clubs at cafes and pubs, or under a shade tree that was saved because a logging company didn’t cut it down.

What’s for certain — e-books won’t impact the environment unless we act. Given the figures, we better start tuning out reality TV and tune into more reading. That’s where we’ll see the benefit.

2 thoughts on “Are E-Books Saving the Environment One Book at A Time?

  1. “Therefore, if you replace five books a year, it will take around eight years before you’ve offset your carbon footprint.”

    That’s much worse than I thought.

    How many e-readers will last as long as 8 years?

    Even when a print book is “done,” it’s only paper, and will break down. Not so e-readers. Most digital devices are considered hazardous waste, and will take a very long time to break down, if ever.

    We need to start insisting on digital devices that don’t become obsolete every few years.

  2. Laurel, I see your point. And that’s a problem we all must face — including those companies that manufacture e-readers. From their point of view, it’s a question of innovation. Because technology companies such as Apple thrive on innovating and improving new products, they’re faced with a larger question of changing their business model.

    On the other hand, consumers are faced with an equally important question: Do we give in to our inner consumerism to continue to upgrade our devices as new ones come to market? Or, do we remain content with the devices we have until it becomes absolutely necessary to upgrade?

    Each of us will answer these questions differently. It’s all about how we choose to order our priorities.

Leave a Reply