Opinion Pieces

Are ebooks better for the environment?


After my recent post about green publishing houses, I started to wonder: are books or eBooks better for the environment? This is a question that I have no actual answer for, but have been thinking about for quite some time. I feel that there are three ways to break this question down: cost of production; cost of recycling and/or waste disposal; and the longevity and usefulness of these products.

Cost of Production

Firstly, when you think about the cost of production you have to think about it from the very beginning. When talking about the production of a paper book, we also have to think about the trees from which they come. I know that in the production of paper, there is a lot of water required. I guess this would also extend to the growing of the trees as well. The treatment process of paper can make the paper more or less bio-degradable depending on the chemicals used. This can also be said about the printing and binding process. After the book is actually created, there are distribution costs that involve shipping the product around the world. This adds on the price of carbon emissions and general wear and tear on the environment.

eBooks must be looked at in a two-part process. Firstly, there is the production of the eReader and then the production of the actual eBook. The eReader is essentially like a Tablet computer (in fact many of them allow for Internet access, online chats, and online shopping). The eReader is obviously made up of a lot of different materials: plastics, metals like gold and copper, sometimes leather, and rubber. Similar to paper books, eReaders are created usually through machine production. Like the paper book, the eReader needs to be distributed and sold around the world, so it too incurs a carbon emission debt. EBooks are essentially computer files. They require computer programs to design the layout and display. The only cost here would be electricity and the wear and tear on the computer used to create it.

Cost of Recycling and/or Waste Disposal

I think that it is extremely important to think about the recycling costs and waste disposal of both products. Paper and paper books are fairly easy to recycle. I would also think that in most countries paper recycling seems to be straightforward. Paper, is essentially a tree, which makes it organic waste. It is bio-degradable (in most cases, although one does have to factor in some of the chemicals used to treat the paper as I previously mentioned).

EReaders can be recycled. They can be pulled a part and their internal parts can be re-used and recycled. Although, I think that access to this kind of recycling is not as good as it could be for a lot of countries. This, I think can make the eReaders a little bit more wasteful in the long run because some people don’t know how to recycle them properly. Or countries don’t offer proper recycling/waste disposal for them. The other factor that needs to be addressed with eReaders is their life span. This also touches on my last point: usability and longevity. EReaders do have a life span. Whilst it is possible that a paper book could be dropped in the bath or ripped up by the dog, if you look after a book, it can essentially last for hundreds of years. Just go to the library at the monastery in St. Gallen to see what I am talking about. EReaders, on the other hand, have a shorter life. Their batteries die, the screen can stop working, their hard drives can malfunction… It doesn’t matter how good you treat it. Also, in the end, if your eReader manages to survive the long haul, the company that made it won’t always have updates or support that old software (I know this, because it happened to me).

Lastly, Usability and Longevity

Books can last a very long time. EReaders have a life-expectancy. EBook files can be shared and downloaded on computers, tablets, and eReaders making the paper trail obsolete. Books take up space, and they can be hard to look after. Often libraries around the world require de-humidifiers to make sure the books stay safe. Books batteries never run out though, and the book is always ready to be used.

For some reason, paper books have not been overshadowed by eReaders and eBooks. Is it habit that we buy paper? Is it better for the environment to use one over the other

These points here are only the beginning of a thought process and discussion I would like to develop about paper books and eReaders and eBooks. I oscillate between the two products, digital and paper, and find myself non-the-wiser. I use both paper and digital books, but have always had a tendency towards paper. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for this is I find it more comfortable to read paper than on screen.

This is something that I have been really thinking about lately and would love to know what you think about it. Do you pick one style over the other and do you have any environmental reasons for doing so? If you have any information or ideas about what is better, please let me know! Remember as always, to share the reading love!

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3 thoughts on “Are ebooks better for the environment?

  1. You’ve definitely got me thinking about this too. At a glance, I would have thought eReaders were the way to go, but I agree with your questions of longevity and reuse. Books do lead to the destruction of the environment – books printed on recycled paper perhaps? Although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that fits the bill!

    I suppose the most environmentally friendly thing you can probably do is not buy books at all. We both know this isn’t a reasonable option.

    • It is a tough question. I try to borrow books from libraries were possible, but I am also limited in a country that is not my native land or language. Reading English books translated into German is a drag.
      I wonder if there is a solution though in only buying sustainable paper books?

      • I think it would have to be a mix of the three – libraries, second hand books and those printed on sustainable paper…. but then what if a book you’re keen to read comes out and it’s not available in any other form than what is the norm?

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