Battle of the Book

Is it “greener” to read an e-book or an old-fashioned paper book?

By Daniel Goleman and  Gregory Norris

With e-readers like Apple’s new iPad and Amazon’s Kindle touting their vast libraries of digital titles, some bookworms are bound to wonder if tomes-on-paper will one day become quaint relics. But the question also arises, which is more environmentally friendly: an e-reader or an old-fashioned book? To find the answer, we turned to life-cycle assessment, which evaluates the ecological impact of any product, at every stage of its existence, from the first tree cut down for paper to the day that hardcover decomposes in the dump. With this method, we can determine the greenest way to read.(1)

Step 1: Materials

One e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals. That includes trace amounts of exotic metals like columbite-tantalite, often mined in war-torn regions of Africa. But it’s mostly sand and gravel to build landfills; they hold all the waste from manufacturing wafer boards for the integrated circuits. An e-reader also requires 79 gallons of water to produce its batteries and printed wiring boards, and in refining metals like the gold used in trace quantities in the circuits.

A book made with recycled paper consumes about two-thirds of a pound of minerals. (Here again, the greatest mineral use is actually gravel, mainly for the roads used to transport materials throughout the supply chain.) And it requires just 2 gallons of water to make the pulp slurry that is then pressed and heat-dried to make paper.

Step 2: Manufacture

Fossil Fuels: The e-reader’s manufacture, along a vast supply chain of consumer electronics, is relatively energy-hungry, using 100 kilowatt-hours of fossil fuels and resulting in 66 pounds of carbon dioxide. For a single book, which, recycled or not, requires energy to form and dry the sheets, it’s just two kilowatt-hours, and 100 times fewer greenhouse gases.

Health: The unit for comparison here is a “disability adjusted life-year,” the length of time someone loses to disability because of exposure to, say, toxic material released into the air, water, and soil, anywhere along the line.

For both the book and the e-reader, the main health impacts come from particulate emissions like nitrogen and sulfur oxides, which travel deep into our lungs, worsening asthma and chronic coughing and increasing the risk of premature death. The adverse health impacts from making one e-reader are estimated to be 70 times greater than those from making a single book.

Step 3: Transportation

If you order a book online and have it shipped 500 miles by air, that creates roughly the same pollution and waste as making the book in the first place. Driving five miles to the bookstore and back causes about 10 times the pollution and resource depletion as producing it. You’d need to drive to a store 300 miles away to create the equivalent in toxic impacts on health of making one e-reader—but you might do that and more if you drive to the mall every time you buy a new book.

Step 4: Reading

If you like to read a book in bed at night for an hour or two, the light bulb will use more energy than it takes to charge an e-reader, which has a highly energy-efficient screen. But if you read in daylight, the advantage tips to a book.

Step 5: Disposal

If your e-reader ends up being “recycled” illegally so that workers, including children, in developing countries dismantle it by hand, they will be exposed to a range of toxic substances. If it goes through state-of-the-art procedures—for example, high-temperature incineration with the best emissions controls and metals recovery—the “disability adjusted life-year” count will be far less for workers.

If your book ends up in a landfill, its decomposition generates double the global warming emissions and toxic impacts on local water systems as its manufacture.

Some of this math is improving. More and more books are being printed with soy-based inks, rather than petroleum-based ones, on paper that is recycled or sourced from well-managed forests and that was produced at pulp mills that don’t use poisons like chlorine to whiten it. The electronics industry, too, is trying to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and to improve working conditions and worker safety throughout its far-flung supply chains.

So, how many volumes do you need to read on your e-reader to break even? With respect to fossil fuels, water use, and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.

All in all, the most ecologically virtuous way to read a book starts by walking to your local library. 

(1) A note about e-readers. Some technical details—for instance, how those special screens are manufactured—are not publicly available, and these products vary in their exact composition. We’ve based our estimates on a composite derived from available information. It’s also important to keep in mind that we’re focusing on the e-reader aspect of these devices, not any other functions they may offer.

From: The New York Times, April 4, 2010. c. 2011 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.

Illustration by Javier Candeira

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13 Comments

  • pat ganase June 9, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Paper books also have other attributes that e-books don’t – smell, feel, physicality that connect and provide context with the story/ text.

    Reply

  • Diane Jukofsky June 10, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Even better: a book printed on Forest Stewardship Certified paper, as Scholastic did with the last Harry Potter book.

    Reply

  • What about eTextbooks? | Clarity Communications Consulting July 26, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    […] Meanwhile, Conservation Magazine published a New York Times article from 2010 asking if it’s greener to read an ebook or an old-fashioned paper book. To find the answer, The Times had done a life-cycle assessment, […]

    Reply

  • Dave July 29, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    The light bulb will still be used with most of the dedicated eReaders because the screen is not lit.

    Reply

  • Qué tipo de libro es más ecológico los de papel o el libro electronico | Ecologia y medio ambiente | Diario Ecologia July 30, 2011 at 9:16 am

    […] revista Conservation publica un artículo de Daniel Goleman y Gregory Norris sobre los efectos medioambienta…. Analizan el efecto ambiental de los materiales, la fabricación, el transporte, la lectura y el […]

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  • Qué tipo de libro es más ecológico: los de papel o el libro electrónico | Quincena de libros August 5, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    […] revista Conservation publica un artículo de Daniel Goleman y Gregory Norris sobre los efectos medioambienta…. Analizan el efecto ambiental de los materiales, la fabricación, el transporte, la lectura y el […]

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  • Rob Wilson September 5, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    So I have to read more than a hundred books on my e-reader for it to be ecologically friendlier than reading paperbacks? Well, that’s pretty much a given. You don’t buy an e-reader for just a handful of books. As for the “I like the smell of paper” argument, that’s just because you have formed a positive association between what you **really** like, which is reading books, and the then-current book delivery technology. You don’t have intrinsic feelings for the paper, you like that feel and smell because they hold the promise of the story to come.

    Reply

    • Hope September 13, 2011 at 8:04 am

      i agree with your arguments about why people like books as opposed to e-readers based on emotive values.
      i like that i dont have to charge my book and if i want to go camping for a few weeks its easier to pack some paperbacks then it would be to lug along a generator to charge my e-reader.
      but people most of the people i know dont go far from the “comforts of society” and fewer and fewer people know how to survive outside of an urban setting.

      for me the debate harolds back to the fact that as humans get more and more urbanized, they become less and less in touch with the planet on which they live.

      Reply

  • Nora O'Floinn September 13, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Also, what about the fact that many folks read used books, share books with friends, in effect become our own lending libraries? I don’t see that happening with the 1-person, 1 e-reader model, sorry

    Reply

  • Lori Duvall September 14, 2011 at 10:16 am

    But is it really safe to assume that all paperbacks are printed on recycled paper? And, even if so, did you account for any chemicals/water used in processing recycled fiber into stock for printing?

    Reply

  • buddy September 21, 2011 at 5:09 am

    I do not usually find this type of data interesting, but you have proven that a talented writer can take information that is often considered dull and make it pop:) Great job

    Reply

  • ¿Ebook o libro de papel? – Blog de residuos de la Mancomunidad de la Comarca de Pamplona January 2, 2012 at 4:45 am

    […] entre el efecto medio ambiental de la fabricación de ebooks y libros de papel, según publican Goleman y Norris en la revista Conservation, en términos de contribución al calentamiento global la fabricación de […]

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