Books vs ebooks: Protect the environment with this simple decision

Read time: 9 mins
Books vs ebooks: Protect the environment with this simple decision

When talking about the books vs ebooks debate, often you'll hear people say that ebooks and ereaders help protect the environment. Let's do the math for ourselves and see what the possible advantages of ebooks are over traditional books.

Technology plays an incredibly important role in our day-to-day lives. After all, many of us rely on computers, tablets, and phones for everyday activities like perusing emails, sending texts, and checking the weather. Recently, even the activity of reading has become increasingly digitalized with the introduction of e-readers. Though Amazon’s Kindle is certainly the most famous, there are a host of other companies that produce them as well- such as Barnes and Noble’s Nook. Though at first glance this may seem like an ideal way to reduce CO2 emissions and save our forests, there are a variety of factors to consider that make the choice of switching to e-reader technology a more difficult one than it might initially appear; there can be no doubt that the manufacturing, use, and disposal of these devices has an affect on our environment.

Advantages of ebooks:

Though it would be lovely if we could all look to e-reader technology as an environmentally friendly alternative to print, in reality, whether or not they have the power to decrease our carbon footprint is dependent on our personal habits. A single e-reader’s total carbon footprint is approximately 168kg, and for a book, this figure is somewhere in the range of 7.5kg; the book’s length and type can lead this figure to vary.1 Using an average of 7.5kg, we can conclude it would take reading about 22-23 books on an e-reader to reach a level in which the environmental impact is the same as if those books had been read in print.

Along that logic, reading over 44 books on an e-reader would actually halve a person’s impact on the climate.1 We are thus able to reason that if you do not read at least 22 books on an e-reader before replacing it, your environmental impact is actually greater than if you had read them in print, which is why it is especially important to assess individual reading habits before making the decision to buy an e-reader; you must be aware of how many ebooks you are likely to read before upgrading and determine whether or not that number will make up for the initial bulk of CO2 emissions required to produce it as well as the emissions required to keep it functioning daily. That being said, many people use their e-readers for about 4 years before replacing them, and the average e-reader prevents the sale of nearly 22-23 books per year.1

If you can match these statistics, using an e-reader would allow you to significantly decrease your carbon footprint- even when taking into account the initial CO2 emissions needed to produce it! A prominent study on the subject summarized by noting that the 168kg needed to sustain a Kindle during the entirety of its lifecycle is a clear winner when looking at potential savings of nearly 1,074kg if it is used to replace 3 books a month for 4 years.1 For someone that reads even more often, the e-reader’s savings would increase substantially! It’s hard to deny the advantages of ebooks when faced with these revealing statistics.

Books vs ebooks: Why Does it Matter?

Despite the facts, you might be asking yourself, why should I care about the environmental impact of printed books vs ebooks? Does it really make that big of a difference? Though these are valid questions, hopefully some background information will lead to a greater appreciation of this issue’s importance. We are so often surrounded by an endless supply of printed books, magazines, and newspapers that it is easy to become desensitized to or forget about their negative impact on our environment. However, in 2008 alone, the publishing industry was responsible for the harvest of nearly 125 million trees.

On top of that, our landfills are composed of about 26% paper, and the publishing industry comprises about 11% of freshwater consumed in industrial nations.1 These are undeniably significant statistics that warrant our attention. Most people would likely agree that it is imperative we reduce our reliance on landfills, maintain the health of our forests, and attempt to limit any excess use of valuable freshwater. We have become accustomed to printed books, but with the introduction of e-reader technology, it could be possible that strides toward a more environmentally friendly lifestyle can be made. Because of this, we should all consider the ebooks vs printed books argument an important one and attempt to educate ourselves on the issue.

Before one can even hope to use an e-reader, it must first pass through the stage of production, which, unfortunately, means extensive energy usage and CO2 emissions. On top of this, an individual must take certain steps to keep their e-reader charged and functioning, which requires even more CO2 emissions. How does this affect the books vs ebooks debate? There are several estimates for the total carbon footprint of such an endeavor, and the average seems to be in the range of 168kg.

However, the average carbon footprint associated with the production of a single paper book is only about 7.5kg.1 There is the fact that producing a single e-reader requires the extraction of nearly 33lb of minerals and uses about 79 galloons of water.4 It should come as no surprise that traditional, printed books do not require even close to the same amount of resources, and being aware of these simple facts makes it crystal clear that e-readers are not a perfect solution. However, depending on individual reading habits, they can serve as a way to avoid excess CO2 emissions, and it is for these reasons that this issue of the utmost importance.

Books vs ebooks: Some Complications

There are several other important factors to consider in regards to the books vs ebooks debate. Firstly, once an individual decides to replace an e-reader, things become a bit more complicated. Even if they were able to read enough books to lessen their individual environmental impact, electronic waste is a problem in and of its own. Many are aware that companies seek to release new iterations of their technology at a steady pace, and e-readers are no exception; there have already been 6 different types of Kindle released! Consumers regularly seek to replace their existing e-reader for the newest model. If an e-reader is not properly recycled, it will likely end up releasing toxic substances into the atmosphere in one way or another.3 This is obviously a potential downside to the increased popularity of e-readers and requires that companies make greater efforts to offer recycling programs and inform consumers about them. Thankfully, Amazon does have a mail-in recycling program in place for the Kindle and its batteries, but it’s arguable the degree to which they advertise this fact.1 Yet another argument against purchasing an e-reader focuses on the apparent lack of adaptation within the printing industry. It is the duty of people within the industry to predict how many books should be printed and shipped to stores. Though there is data suggesting a decline in the purchase of printed books and an incline in ebook sales, the industry has failed to adapt and continues to ship in excess. Unfortunately, this results in the burning of books that fail to sell and has a hugely negative impact on carbon emissions.1 Unless the printing industry is able to predict lower sales and adjust their production accordingly, it is nearly impossible for e-readers to significantly reduce carbon emissions. This is an obstacle for anyone thinking about purchasing one to reduce their carbon footprint, as it’s an issue individual consumers have little to no control over.

There are also a few arguments to take into consideration in regards to the value of printed books. One such argument focuses on the higher reading comprehension associated with print. There have been studies done that suggest reading a printed book allows for a more natural intake of information than reading off a screen.2 I can personally attest to this, as my experience with both mediums in college has led me to believe I have much better retention when I am reading a printed book. Yet another thing to consider is the fact that a book will likely have a longer lifespan than an e-reader, which will eventually be replaced for a newer model. These arguments have nothing to do with the environmental impact of either medium, but they are still referenced in the books vs ebooks debate.

Books vs ebooks: Any other environmentally friendly alternatives to consider?

It should be also noted this debate is not restricted to only these two options. Though it has been framed from this perspective, there are a few other paths to mention. Firstly, the value of libraries should not be underestimated. They act as yet another method of reducing environmental impact by sharing one collection with many people. As was mentioned, printing a single book has a carbon footprint of about 7.5kg CO2. This seemingly small number can become quite significant when it is multiplied by a large number of consumers that each want their own copy of the book, but in the case of a library, it can remain small and relatively inconsequential; fewer books can serve a larger number of people. This is a fairly environmentally responsible method that should be mentioned more frequently in the books vs ebooks debate. Yet another thing to consider is the availability of e-reader apps for devices you may already own. Rather than purchasing a separate e-reader, it can be wise to look at what is already available to you. It has probably become clear by now that devices can have a significant environmental impact, but they are also incredibly expensive. It is in the environment’s best interest, as well as your pocketbook’s, to make use of what you already own. For instance, an iPad can utilize the Apple iBooks software.3 Allowing an iPhone to double as an e-reader could also be an option; on average, producing a single iPhone results in about 55kg of CO2 emissions, which is significantly less than an e-reader.1 They can be used to perform a variety of tasks, and though many people might not think to use it as one, it can serve as a highly transportable, environmentally friendly reading device.

When consumers take note of their reading habits and the printing industry adapts accordingly, ebooks clearly have the potential to lessen CO2 emissions. That being said, it is important to take in all facets of the books vs ebooks debate as well as look at possible alternatives, like libraries and apps, when deciding what is best in your unique situation.


1 Ritch, Emma. "The Environmental Impact of Amazon's Kindle." The Environmental Impact of Amazon’s Kindle The Environmental Impact of Amazon’s Kindle (2009): n. pag. Web.

2 "Print or Digital: It All Has Environmental Impact." N.p., 24 Jan. 2014. Web.

3 "E-readers vs Books: The Environmental Debate." N.p., May 2013. Web.

4 Siegle, Lucy. “Should I Stop Buying Paper Books and Use an E-reader Instead?” N.p., 5 Jan. 2013. Web.



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