Which is More Environmentally Friendly? E-Readers VS. Print Books

Which is More Environmentally Friendly? E-Readers VS. Print Books

I stare at my bookshelf. Four rows are packed end to end with books. They tower over me. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer all stick out as I decide how I can move them all out of this apartment and into the U-Haul. Getting them all in here was tough enough, but I’ve added to my collection since then.

I’m going to need a box for all of my poetry books and literary magazines…and maybe two or three more boxes for all of my fiction novels. My head turns toward my desk, eyeing the two stacks of anthologies and other books I bought for my classes this semester. And a box for those too, I guess.

I wish I still had my Kindle.

E-readers: the “future” of books. I bought one a few years back for school. We read novels instead of textbooks in most of my classes, so I figured it’d just be easier to download them on the Kindle than having to carry around 10 novels every day. I found out fast enough that it wasn’t for me. I felt like a ninety-year-old trying to figure out how to mark pages and highlight anything, plus half of the books I needed for class weren’t available to download.

My Kindle phase was short-lived, and helped me realized how much I loved my old fashioned books. Flipping a page and being able to run your fingers over the clean, smooth paper is something that can’t be replaced with a screen.

But, the Kindle is easier to carry. The smartphones and Kindles can store hundreds of books, which means that if I had one, I wouldn’t be sitting here on my floor, trying to figure out how many trips bringing my books down is going to take me.

Besides the ease of carry, I’ve heard that they are more environmentally friendly than regular books. This seems like the environmentalist book lover’s dream: being able to read as many books as you want without the long paper trail. But it’s not that simple. Just about a million different factors go into whether reading print books or reading from an e-reader is better for the environment, including manufacturing, materials, usage, and disposal. Even if an e-reader saves us about 150 sheets of paper, it’s possible that the fossil fuels used to create the device offset the reward.

Manufacturing just one e-reader takes up around 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels and creates over 65 pounds of carbon dioxide. Book manufacturing, on the other hand, only uses up two kilowatt hours of fossil fuels and produces under 17 pounds of carbon dioxide. But this doesn’t mean that print books take the lead for environmental friendliness: they threaten deforestation around the world, and the production of the ink used often puts harmful chemicals into our atmosphere. The same goes for the materials used to create them. E-readers use up almost 50 times more pounds of minerals and 40 times more water than a book made from recycled paper.

I stand up and look at my progress: the pieces of my disassembled bookshelf surrounds the six cardboard boxes. I try to lift one of the boxes and it won’t budge.

What’s the point of filling these boxes if they’re just going to be too heavy to move? It’s like I’d need double the boxes only filled up halfway for me to be able to carry any of them.

 The pieces of my bookshelf seem less daunting, so I pick those up and pile them neatly next to me bedroom door, putting all the small screws and hardware into an old plastic Target bag.

In a Huffington Post blog article, I read that “the energy, water, and 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, the emissions created by a single e-reader are equal to roughly 100 books.” This means that reading 100 books on your e-reader and 100 books in print will have the same impact on the environment, as long as you don’t upgrade devices. But if the average American adult only reads around twelve books each year, it would take over eight years reading on the same e-reader to get the environmental use out of it.

It seems to me that e-readers are clearly not the more environmentally friendly option for the average American, but if that’s the case, then why do so many people have them?

The appeal is simple: an easily portable device that you can store hundreds of books on. You can read whatever you want whenever you want, without having to take a trip down to the closest bookstore or waiting for it to come in the mail. It probably makes sense to have for those people who read upwards of 50 books a year. But for the rest of the country who only reads 12, the environmental benefits don’t seem to apply.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle is the motto. Sharing print books and e-readers is one of the best ways to cut down the carbon footprint. And for those towns that still have one, the library can be a magical place.