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Digital books: greener than real books

Last week brought the unsurprising news that mp3s are more environmentally friendly than physical CDs. I wondered at the time whether the same might be true for digital books:

> It’s not clear to me, though, which way the scales tip. Book are not, of course, completely benign. Energy goes into their manufacture, transport, and disposal. Beyond that — and here I speak as a Kindle owner — electronic readers do result in at least some energy savings by supplanting computer use. I suspect that physical books retain an edge over their digital cousins, possibly a substantial one. But I’d be curious to see some actual numbers.

Today the internet delivers some actual numbers, and it turns out that a modern-day Thoreau is better off with a keyboard than a pen:

> The new study finds that e-readers could have a major impact on improving the sustainability and environmental impact on the publishing industry, one of the world’s most polluting sectors. In 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention wastewater that was produced or its massive carbon footprint….

> The report indicates that, on average, the carbon emitted in the lifecycle of a Kindle is fully offset after the first year of use.

The full study isn’t publicly available, so I can’t comment on the assumptions that went into this analysis. It appears the authors are assuming e-readers displace almost 23 physical books a year, a figure that strikes me as fantastically high. However, it’s possible that the figure is inflated to account for the large proportion of physical books that are remaindered and destroyed. And in any case, replacing 23 books over the lifetime of the device seems plausible enough.

Long story short: you can buy your e-reader guilt-free. Or you can use libraries and used bookshops to green you reading the old-fashioned way.

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