Last updated: November 2016
E-readers vs books – the environmental debate
Many people have strong intuitions about which is likely to be better for the environment, books made out of numbers or books made out of tree flesh. The problem is that different people’s intuitions point in opposite directions. So what does the data suggest?
Greenhouse gases – the data
It is hard to find out about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with Kindles as Amazon is secretive about its production processes and won't release any data on it. One consultancy firm estimated a Kindle's lifecycle emissions at 168 kg CO2eq, but this figure has been widely criticised for not being based on anything much.
However, much more data is available for iPads. Apple has published calculations regarding the ipad's full lifetime emissions (including disposal and energy in use), which it estimates at 130kg CO2eq.
Meanwhile for paper books, a US study estimated lifetime CO2eq at 4kg per book, and a British study at 3kg.
What the data means
This data suggests that once you’ve read 26-33 books on your iPad it starts to become better for the climate than buying the books in hard copy. Obviously this is based on Apple's own figures, so some scepticism may be warranted. However, this is the most reliable data that currently seems to be out there.
The vast bulk of the energy used by e-readers is expended during manufacturing, and so the more books you then read on them, the better they perform relative to their paper cousins. E-readers consume little electricity in use, as is apparent from the fact that it is possible to run them for weeks on a single battery charge. And while the data centres and servers storing the books consume electricity, calculations on the electricity used by the Internet suggest that this will also be a comparatively small amount.
Not so clear on other environmental issues
However, the climate is not the only thing that we need to worry about.
E-readers require the mining of a whole range of non-renewable minerals like columbite-tantalite, which is used to make capacitors. And 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.
At the same time, paper books are not innocent on the toxics front. The production of ink for printing releases a number of volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, including hexane, toluene, and xylene, which may contribute to a range of public health problems.
Comparing such different impacts is obviously difficult. A paper by GreenPress concludes thus: “[The] “breakeven point” will be diﬀerent for diﬀerent metrics of environmental performance but...for greenhouse gas emissions this number is probably between 20 and 35 books while for measures of human health impacts the number is probably closer to 70 books.”
So overall, the best information available at the moment suggests that e-readers may sometimes be able to beat paper books on environmental impacts, but only if you read on them a lot.
What is much clearer than the relative benefits of digital and analog is the importance of how much things get used. If you do have an e-reader, you should keep it for the long haul and avoid being suckered by the ‘Next Big Thing’ with which the e-reader companies are constantly trying to seduce us all. Eight different versions of the Kindle have been released since 2007.
And if you are a paper freak, share books, or – if you're lucky enough to still have one open near you after all the government cuts - use a library.
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. Of the new models, there are a number who score well overall, get our best rating for conflict minerals and make greener models including LG G Pad, Apple ipad, Lenovo Thinkpad X1 and X10 and Sony Xperia Z.