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The guilty pleasure of reading

When I was a little girl, I read a stack of Berenstein Bears books every morning before I would do anything else — and this was before I could officially “read.” This love of reading has persisted throughout my life. I almost always have a book with me nowadays, as my TerraPass colleagues can attest.

Unfortunately, the business of publishing books, newspapers, and magazines has a large environmental impact. In addition to the tens of millions of trees harvested every year, paper manufacturing is responsible for 11 percent of all freshwater consumed by industrial nations, and is associated with an annual discharge of 153 billion gallons of wastewater.

Which brings me to ebook readers like Amazon’s Kindle—could they be better for the environment than physical books? There’s no question that the production of ebook readers have their own environmental costs, ranging from mining for the natural resources and minerals that go into their production, to the energy used in the manufacturing process, to the emissions associated with disposing of and/or recycling the readers at the end of their useful life.

According to a 2009 brief by the Cleantech Group, an average book has a carbon footprint of about 7.46 kg of CO2. By comparison, the average Kindle has a carbon footprint of approximately 168 kg of CO2 over its lifetime. This means that if you were to purchase a Kindle, you would “break even” on the greenhouse gas impacts once your use of the Kindle led you to avoid the purchase of 22.5 physical books; any ebook purchased beyond the first 22.5 books would be akin to preventing 7.46 kg of CO2 emissions, in addition to reducing the use of natural resources (e.g. water and wood fiber) that would have gone into a physical book.

By my estimation, I read about 20 books last year. I was given or purchased 7 new books, and the rest I checked out from the library, bought from a used bookstore, or were leant to me by friends. At this rate, it would take about three years of Kindle use for me to realize any net greenhouse gas benefit. Since I read a lot more than most people I know, I expect it would take the average person even longer to overcome the climate costs of the new device, if they realize any environmental benefit at all. For example, upgrading to a newer ebook reader model before reaching the “break even” emissions point of 22.5 ebooks would appear as a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions when compared with the carbon footprint of physical books. Further, the potential environmental benefits of ebook readers will only come to fruition if the publishing industry actually decreases production of physical books—from this perspective, ebook readers are only a means to an end.

If the overall goal is to reduce demand for (and therefore production of) physical books, I’m left feeling confused on how to proceed. In the short term at least, I’ll stick with my library card, since it prevents me from purchasing new books and allows me to share the environmental impact of my reading habit with other library patrons. Still, access to lending libraries has definitely not slowed the growth of the publishing industry, and the growing demand for ebooks (while still a very small share of the market) is a transparent message for publishing houses that the production of physical books may not be necessary. If we want to actually change the way the publishing industry does business, perhaps encouraging use of ebook readers is an important tool to make use of. Could an ebook reader be the way to go in the end?

Dear TerraPass Footprint reader, please help!

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