Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just How Environmentally Friendly Are E-books?

Well, it turns out that reading books on an e-book reader is not nearly as environmentally friendly as it's been advertised to be.

It is difficult to compare the environmental impact of the readers to that of producing millions of books on paper every year but some interesting facts do emerge when everything is considered. I was especially surprised by the break even point suggested by the article (the number of books that have to be read on an e-book reader before it begins to contribute to an overall positive impact on the environment). The article is from Steven Levingston, "Political Bookworm" of the Washington Post:
... surely e-readers must be a more eco-friendly way to read, right? Not so fast, said Green Press Initiative program manager Todd Pollack.

“It is almost certain that e-readers have the potential to reduce the impacts associated with harvesting trees and forest conversion, but that does not guarantee that they are the better choice from an environmental standpoint,” he wrote in an email. “We don’t have enough information to say which method of reading a book is best for the environment.”
Things get complicated because there is more to the energy cost of an e-book reader than the juice used to charge its battery. In addition to that cost there is this:
“About forty percent of the energy costs is embedded in the supply chain” — mining, shipping, water usage, manufacturing, etc. — “and it is difficult to put numbers on that,” he said. Many manufacturers aren’t keen on sharing what’s in the devices, anyway.

Furthermore, the server farms that allow a digital book to be downloaded to an e-reader also consume an immense amount of energy.
Then there's what happens to all those e-readers when they bite the dust. The article claims that manufacturing one e-book reader has the same environmental impact as producing 70 books. All in all, journalist Danial Goleman estimates that users of electronic readers only break even after reading 100 books on their readers. As he says, “If you’re going to be an e-reader, you have to be dedicated about it.”


  1. Seventy books! I've been wondering about this question myself, so I'm glad you've provided some information. I'll stick to the paper books for now, myself.

  2. Jeane, I will always prefer books on trees, too.