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?
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).
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!