Confession of a Bookoholic

September 12, 2011

I have a confession to make. I am a bibliophile.

There, the truth is finally out. Although to any who read this blog or the ECC weekly conservation tip (or have met me) this hardly comes as a surprise. While I’m not sure you can tell my love for books simply by looking at me, I’m sure after only a handful of conversations it would become apparent.

While I do enjoy the thrill of hunting down a particular volume, waiting for a good deal on it, and then sitting down in my very comfortable reading chair, devouring the book, I also try to keep abreast of the changing tide of technology. So when I first heard about eBooks and eReaders almost a decade ago, I was quite intrigued.

Is this a phenomenon that could take over the book industry or just a passing fad?

The Colorful Library of an Interaction Designer (Juhan Sonin) / 20100423.7D.05887.P1 / SML
Creative Commons License photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML

Which one is better for the environment: traditional books or eBooks?

Humans have been writing down thoughts and ideas for almost as long as there have been humans. While some authors and song writers decry the amount of transparency that has come to the art, that won’t stop them from writing about it. Man has advanced from rock walls, to the papyrus plant, to the vellum of animals, and back to plants again. Modern paper is made from wood pulp fibers. These fibers are laid in a mat and dried and there is a sheet of paper. These pages are then folded or cut to their correct dimensions and have text printed on them. Then the book is bound.

There are a number of different binding techniques. One is to use a super flexible glue to hold the papers together. This is known as perfect binding and is used on most paperbacks. The book can also be bound by having its pages sewn together.

So how much wood does a book use?

The standard measuring unit of wood is a cord. A cord (not to be confused with a C chord) is an 8 foot by 4 foot by 4 foot pile of wood. That one cord of wood can produce around 300 hardbacks (assuming a good hardback is at least 300 pages). If each new title published this year (about 200,000) had only one copy, then it would take around 660 cords of wood. How many of those titles will sell millions of copies (I bet George R. R. Martin’s new book will.) How many titles from the previous year will be reprinted?

Each book has a carbon footprint of about 9 lbs.

That means each book written, printed, published, and sold in stores emits 9 more pounds of carbon into the atmosphere.

What about eBooks and eReaders? How much carbon do they produce? An eBook is a normal book that has been published electronically, i.e. it only exists as an electronic copy (just like everything under My Documents). eReaders come in two different types. There are those devices that are made just to have eBooks on them like the Kindle and Nook. There are other devices that allow you to read eBooks, like computers and smart phones.

An eBook does not directly produce any carbon.

It does take electricity to power the device it was typed on and electricity to email it to the publishers. After its published, it takes electricity to power the internet and my computer so I can buy it and download it. It also takes electricity to power my eReader. While an eBook does not directly produce carbon, the process of creation, distribution, and use does produce carbon. Without the eBook the internet and my computer will still be on, authors will still type their works and email them to their publishers. The only additional electricity is that used to power the eReader.

The ability to read books on your computer (or phone or other multipurpose device) does not generate any additional carbon. Because the device is multifunctional, you probably would have bought it anyway, and the addition of the ability to read on it is just another perk. The only extra carbon generation comes from the extra time you spend on the device.

But what about the eReaders? How much carbon do they generate? I know I’m not the only person wondering about this (you’re reading this aren’t you?). The Cleantech group released a study about how much carbon eReader produce.

An iPad produces around 286 lbs of carbon and a Kindle 370 lbs.

So how many books do I have to read to offset the carbon (not including the carbon produced by the electricity used for the eBooks and eReaders).

iRex iLiad
Creative Commons License photo credit: Tscherno

I have a Kindle, there are many others like it, but mine is mine. I picked it over the other devices because I fell in love with it (I tend to go with things I fall in love with over those I don’t love). For each eBook I read, I save about 9lbs of carbon. To offset the Kindle’s carbon (370) I have to read about 41 books (370/9). I have no problems doing that. In less than a year I’ve read over 100 books , short stories, and essays on my Kindle. Granted I usually go through two books a week. I am trying to make up for the one out of four Americans that reads nothing.

So eReaders can be green, but are they the greenest. Far too often I make a pilgrimage to Half Price Books. I love rooting around in the shelves seeing what treasures they might hold. In addition to being nicely priced, used books do not produce any more carbon. There is another great place I go to look for books and DVDs. All the stuff there is available for free. Have you guessed what place it is yet? It’s the library. Again, in addition to being free, the books produce no more carbon, no matter how many times you read them.

So are eBooks and eReaders green?

Yes and no. If you read a lot of books (like me), an eReader may be greener than buying all those books. eReaders might also have a good place in classrooms. While I do love my Kindle, I won’t ever get rid of all my paper books. Not only do I enjoy the tactile sensation, but not all of my books are available for download yet. I, however, am using my Kindle to solve another problem I have. I ran out of space on my bookshelves awhile ago. If I convert all my paperbacks to the Kindle (and buy books at a slower rate), I’ll free up an entire shelve on my bookcase!


Authored By Daniel Burch

An inveterate punster, amateur chef, and fencer, Daniel B has a double degree in History and Museum Science from Baylor. He currently serves as the Assistant Program Coordinator for the Wiess Energy Hall and Adult Education at HMNS.

6 responses to “Confession of a Bookoholic”

  1. Allison says:

    You could always check books out of the library and you don’t have to worry about any of this. Borrowing books or buying used is probably greener.

  2. Daniel says:

    Oh, I will never stop going to the library, or trading good books with friends, or buying books (much to my bank account chagrin). But its good to know how to evaluate claims of greenness. While an electronic copy is greener than a physical copy, all the processes that make the eCopy may or may not be greener. There are a lot of peripheral greenness to consider. How far away is the library? How much gas does my car use to get to the library? Is it on the way, or do I have to make a special trip? Is that more or less CO2 than the power plant produced to run the servers, the lights, my wireless router, my lamps, and charge my eReader? How many of those are directly related to me reading and which ones are not? (Its not easy being green, It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things,…)

    Thanks reading and commenting

  3. Louise says:

    Great post, very informative! There’s another option to consider: free ebooks from your library. Of course that’s not an option with your Kindle right now (only Nooks & other ereaders), but supposedly it will be soon. Borrowing ebooks doesn’t use any *less* carbon than simply buying them, because you do still need the device to read them, but it is easier on your wallet.

  4. What if you read an ebook about an energy efficient form of transportation, like for instance, running?
    Now THAT would be green 🙂

  5. Donna Hargis says:

    Always exceptions! I love to buy used books, I love to sell used books. I love the feel of a book in my hands. I like having books on my shelves, but any book worth reading gets passed on to a friend. And of course I buy a lot of new books too!

    I read a ton of blogs too, but I don’t have a Kindle…yet.

    There is something magical about a well worn book passed among friends that you just can’t get electronically.

  6. Daniel says:

    There is something magical about roaming a used book store, flipping through a well loved volume, and reading the marginalia. There is also a joy in getting a pile of good books together and throwing them at a friend to read. However, after you’ve loaned out a couple copies of a good book (like my 2 or 3 copies of Sparrow) it is nice to have a copy that you can sit down any time and read. And after a while all those copies take up a lot of space. While it is nice to have a collectors copy, my reading copy, and my loan copy. Since I’m short on space, I don’t feel bad a converting a lot of my reading copies to eCopies. It would be better if friends could loan me eCopies of their books (they travel a lot, and eCopies are easier to travel with), but we don’t use the same eReader or eBook format. I love giving specific books for presents. Books I’m sure the recipient will like. I have yet to see a way to order a specific eBook from Amazon for a gift. eBooks are still in their infancy, but we will never give up physical books. They may change a bit. We may see an increase in hand bound leather folios or more illumination on codices

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