The Environmental Impacts Of Paper Books Vs. E-Readers

Books on round table next to white vase with white flowers

One of the best feelings in life is being drawn into a good book. It can be a true joy to meet fantastic characters, experience prose, and explore expansive imaginary worlds. But reading comes at a real-world cost, and we don’t mean the price tag on your favorite bestseller. 

The production and publication of our favorite page-turners take natural resources, which raises the question: in the modern world, is it better to read by paper or by pixel? Should we collect tomes for our macro-shelves, or files for our micro-chips? In short: should we buy actual books, or digital e-readers?

The Environmental Impact Of Paper Books

The main area in which paper books impact the environment is in the production of paper. According to The World Counts, there have been 239,000,000 tons of paper produced in 2020 alone. In the U.S. and Europe, the average person uses almost 600 pounds of paper every year. According to rough estimates by the Sierra Club, that’s about 4 trees per person, per year. And while many of these trees are sustainably harvested and replaced, 10 percent of them are old-growth trees that are not replanted. When we’re dealing with figures in the hundreds of millions, 10 percent is quite a lot. 

But deforestation is not the only impact books have on our planet. A tremendous amount of water is also used in the paper-making process. It takes roughly 10 liters of water to make a single sheet of standard 8×10 letter paper, which means it takes about 1,320 gallons of water to make a standard 500-sheet packet. And this process also contaminates leftover water with sediments, effluent solids, halides, chlorinated organic compounds, and other contaminants. This causes the waste (in both water, solids, and sludge) of paper production to account for 40 percent of the United States’ overall industrial waste.

It is important to acknowledge, of course, that printed paper books do not make up all of the paper production industry. A lot of this production also goes to producing office paper, newspapers, magazines, and many other paper products. But it is also important to acknowledge that they are a significant cause of a very wasteful process. 

An upside of paper books, however, is that it is possible to recycle all of them! Each ton of recycled paper books can avoid the use of 17 trees; 1,440 liters of oil; 2.3 cubic meters of landfill space; 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 26,500 liters of water! And while only 53 percent of all paper is recycled, there is tremendous room for improvement. This is especially true when it comes to books, as there is a huge market for used and antique books, as well as plenty of room for individual readers to share and reuse within their communities.

So while it is undeniable that books have a significant environmental impact, there is hope for a much more sustainable future! And that future can start with readers like you!

E-Readers

Information surrounding exactly which raw materials are used to produce an e-reader like the Amazon Kindle has yet to be released to the public. Some ingredients are self-evident, such as hydrocarbons, plastics, copper plating, oil, cobalt, lead, titanium, ammonia, and electroplates. However, materials used to create components such as wifi chips and circuit connectors remain unknown. Therefore, it is impossible to quantify the exact environmental impact of one e-reader. 

However, according to one lifecycle analysis of printed books versus e-readers, the energy, water, and assumed raw materials needed to make a single e-reader is equal to that of 40 to 50 books. In terms of the effect on the climate, this study states the CO2 emissions created by a single e-reader are equal to roughly 100 books. And a full year of one newspaper subscription apparently demands 67 times more water and 140 times more CO2 than one e-reader alternative.

This study also calculates that, if allowed to reach their full design life-cycle and capacity, e-readers could reduce emissions of up to 4 trillion pounds of CO2. The emphasis here, however, is that this is assuming every device reaches its full capacity and life cycle. But in reality, most devices are not used to read more than 75 books, and almost none are responsibly disposed of. This means most e-readers end up in landfills within 3 years of being manufactured. And given how long it takes the ingredients that we do know of to break down, this is quite harmful for our environment.

So while an e-reader is inarguably more efficient in the number of books it holds (especially considering that these books are digital), it is not without its own environmental shortcomings.

What’s Best For You?

It’s clear that there isn’t a one size fits all answer to the book vs. e-reader debate. After all, the best use of resources depends on the individual using them. So in order to help you decide which option is the most sustainable choice for you, you must first examine your habits.

Will you read less than 100 books on a device before exchanging it for a better model? Do you read the news for more than 10 minutes a day? Do you love borrowing and lending books to friends? Do you have a library card?  If the answer is yes, a Swedish study at the KTH Center says the printed page is probably a more sustainable option for you. Especially if you continue to find used books and to recycle, reuse, and reread the books you already have!

Conversely: are you a voracious reader who prefers books to the news? Will you keep this device as long as it will still work? Do you look at one e-reader’s capacity of 6,000 books as a challenge? If so, then an e-reader is probably your way to read.

But of course, regardless of how you read, the most important way to help the environment is to use your resources responsibly. Reuse and recycle whenever possible, educate yourself on the realities of what you’re purchasing, always try to optimize your use of a product, and spread the word on how to read more green!

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