Last updated: May 2013
E-readers vs books – the environmental debate
By the end of 2011, Amazon announced it was selling one million Kindles a week. One thing we can be sure of is that that’s a lot of Kindles. One thing we are less certain about is their environmental impact. Amazon has so far refused to be transparent about its production and the carbon emitted during its use.
You’ll see from our product guide to e:readers that Amazon aren’t the only company who have been rather secretive about the environmental performance of their e-readers, with only Sony producing any type of meaningful environmental report. In addition only Sony and Apple had policies on the use of toxic chemicals. The rest failed miserably on this score.
So how do we know what to choose?
According to Mike Berners-Lee in his book ‘How bad are bananas?’, the production of the average paperback uses 1kg CO2e, while an e-reader produces 50kg CO2e during its manufacture.5 So on the face of it then, an e-reader looks like the green option if you’re likely to read over 50 books.
However unlike books, e-readers have ongoing carbon impacts from everyday use i.e. its electricity use or the electricity used at the data centres and servers storing the books you download. Sadly, as mentioned above, manufacturers have been slow to give out data on energy use so it’s difficult to know the exact emissions resulting from an e-reader’s use.
Other production impacts should also be taken into account. According to an investigation by the New York Times, one e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals. That includes trace amounts of exotic metals like columbite-tantalite [link] and 79 gallons of water to produce its batteries and printed circuit boards. A book made with recycled paper consumes about two thirds of a pound of minerals and requires just 2 gallons of water to make the pulp slurry that makes paper.
Plus what about the fact that most electronic gadgets have a limited life span before the ‘Next Big Thing’ comes along? Since 2007, when Amazon first released its Kindle, the e-reader in general has gone through many changes. The Kindle has 5 versions so far. The Nook comes in at 4 versions. The Kobo made it through 3. Bookeen has 3 versions. Sony has 8 (its first was released in 2004).
End of life
At the end of its life, if your e-reader ends up being ‘recycled’, the chances are it will end up being dismantled by hand in a developing country where workers and the environment will be exposed to a range of toxic substances. A book made of dead trees (or recycled pulp) can last hundreds of years – and, furthermore, be recycled into another book upon its demise.
Berners-Lee, sums it up thus: “E-readers may be wonderful devices but I can’t see a carbon argument for getting one, unless it gets you reading more. And you can’t yet take them in the bath, either.”
The greenest choice is therefore a reused book. Borrowing books from a library or friends helps offset past emissions and avoids future resource use.
Use one device
If you have a tablet we wouldn’t advise you buy a separate e-reader. There is plenty of software available for both Apple and Android platforms that lets you read e-books on your device.
This software includes:
- Google Play / mobcast / moon + / kobo / Aldiko / ebooks.com – for Samsung Galaxy
- Lexcycle Stanza /ebooks.com / Apple iBooks – for iPad
Our Best Buy advice for tablets is to buy second hand where possible. Perhaps surprisingly, Best Buy for new tablets was the Apple iPad. Very poor policies on workers’ rights and toxics from many of the other producers left Apple looking quite sophisticated in this sector.