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!

Author Bio

nicole

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  1. Linda - April 27, 2011

    I am a bibliophile as well. I have a Kindle and also buy used from abebooks.com and amazon.com and at thrift shops and sometimes use the library.
    99% of my reading is non-fiction…John Muir, Walden, lots of self-help, spirituality, etc. I think we need to understand that besides the carbon footprint in this issue, there is a “higher value” as well. I am a better citizen, more evolved conscious person (gardening with Findhorn principles), etc. Helping to protect the environment in other ways (currently working against Fracking in our town). Need knowledge to do this. It may be a necessary cost of the knowledge. Media news is so superficial as to be almost worthless. It often takes a book to make a change. Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

  2. Jen - April 27, 2011

    I’m glad you did the math on how many books it takes to make the kindle “break even” on a carbon leve. I will bet, however, that you break even more quickly than you have estimated.
    I also am a bibliophile and in the past few years I have gotten more and more of my reading material from the library in order to cut down on the purchase of new goods. I finally broke down and downloaded the kindle app to my smartphone, as well as an app called Overdrive that I got through my local library, and have found that I read more books now than I ever did before. I can read for a few minutes at any time now, in situations where I would not have brought a hard copy book with me, like if I’m waiting for a friend who’s running late to our date, or there’s a long line at customer service or it’s taking too long for my takeout to be ready. I never thought I would be converted to e-books but it happened so quickly and easily. Plus, the environmental benefit increases even more quickly if you don’t purchase a “unitasker” reader, but download an ap (or two) to your smart phone or another device you already own.

  3. Fran - April 27, 2011

    I agree with Jen: I love to read and am able to do it much more often on my iPhone with an ereader app than with a standalone technology like the Kindle, Nook, etc. I am curious to know how a tablet PC like the iPad compares to “breaking even” on a Kindle, and separate figures for “breaking even” with a smartphone app.

  4. Woody - April 27, 2011

    I agree, Linda. We need to use some energy to keep ourselves educated in this fast moving world. I didn’t skimp on my choice for a new computer (a small iMac) because I find that it fits the way that I use a computer so well. The smaller screen, etc. of a laptop or other options would diminish my experience, resulting in less getting done. I know that many people do lots of complex work on laptops, but this machine fits me best. I’ve reduced energy and increased recycling/reuse of stuff quite a bit in other ways, so this is sort of my guilty pleasure.

  5. GetCaughtDead - April 27, 2011

    I understand that the Kindle and other e-readers are very efficient and a single charge can provide many hours of reading, but I’m wondering if that energy consumption (and the phantom energy potentially wasted by a plug-in charger) has been factored into this calculation as well?

  6. ChrisW - April 27, 2011

    I’m a retired librarian and read about 130 books a year. When I walk on the treadmill, 5 times per week, I read my Kindel. I can also read my Kindel books on my phone. I check out hardcovers from the library. I buy hardcover young adult books and donate them to the local high schools, who have a zero library budget in Idaho. I belong to http://www.Paperbackswap.com and swap books with people all over the US. Some of these books are swapped hundreds of times before they fall apart. I must admit to buying about 5 paperbacks per month, but I put them up for swap when I’m finished. Hopefully this makes up for some of my carbon footprint.

  7. JD - April 27, 2011

    I don’t doubt this is factually true but I am uncomfortable with the book buyer as the latest environmental villain. I think we need to worry a lot more about corporate activity not to mention all of those “extra soft” or “abosorbent” rolls of toilet paper and paper towels for instance that require virgin forests, not to mention insufficient public transportation that would get cars off the road. Sure, if you’re an avid reader like me–probably a couple hundred books a year–a kindle or similar is probably a good idea for multipe reasons and I’m seriously considering getting one. On the down side, however, reading has always been so pleasurable because it’s simple and easy. It doesn’t require a commitment to expensive quipment and upgrades not to mention access to an electric outlet when you want one–things not all of us take for granted in today’s overly “connected” world. I don’t use a smart phone or a lap top for instance and don’t want to either. I’m not knocking people who like these things and I’ll even agree for the avid reader it’s probably not a bad idea, but back to my original point book lovers aren’t the problem here.

  8. Jake - April 27, 2011

    A few thoughts:
    Books require space. They need bookshelves, and pressure us to live in a larger spaces. Physical objects also require transportation and delivery costs.
    Minor points perhaps – but since we’ve seen home sizes rise dramatically over the last century (in the US anyway), maybe there’s something to it.

  9. Sally Nagel - April 27, 2011

    How does this work if nobody buys books any more? What will it be that we download to our Kindles? Book signings where we really get to meet the author? Children’s books? Book clubs? Browsing through my own library multiple times? What will we borrow from the library?

  10. Anonymous - April 27, 2011

    Library books don’t take up shelf space in your home, and people with large houses usually aren’t filling them up with books. I grew up surrounded with books in my parents’ living room and it was there that I learned to love reading – especially classics and nonfiction – and it’s reading that has expanded my mind and point of view more than anything else (as another commmentor has already noted). More often than not, books and ereaders are merely lifestyle accessories. Real readers know where to find and share books. You can read without electricity; physical books can be passed around and read multiple times by many people. Doesn’t that reduce the carbon footprint of a single book? Also, the commentor who says that books shouldn’t be the focus of climate-change activism is correct. We should be starting with the big-ticket items first – transport, heavy industry, etc.

  11. JD - April 27, 2011

    Also one point I’ve read elsewhere that it’s easier to browse. You can’t order what you don’t know about. At the library or a bookstore you can browse easily and see what catches your fancy. You don’t have to know it exists and no one has to suggest it based on something you have previously read. And yes books do take up some space but at my house, at least, books aren’t the big space taker-upper. That would be furniture, dishes, clothes, linens, etc., etc. Hard for me to imagine anyone moving house due to lack of space for books. Actually I would probably see that as a good problem to have! Also I buy many books and donate them to people who can less afford them and certainly can’t afford a kindle and share books which leads to discussing them. It’s a pleasurable interaction.

  12. Jake - April 27, 2011

    To follow up:
    I didn’t meant to argue books were bad to own. I was {poorly} talking about a wider point of materiality and how that tendency has driven up lots of other things that are towards the big-ticket items you talk about.
    Big houses, big cars, lots of industry to fill them up. Books are just one {small} piece of a very large problem, and the ‘right’ books might even overcome their costs.

  13. philippe souroujon - April 27, 2011

    my wife has the answer : share your kindle account in a kindle group. Maximum is 6 users. You save CO2 when 2 or more phisical copies of the same book would be bought. A small group library…I won

  14. Nicole - April 27, 2011

    Thanks for your points–I completely agree that the individual book reader is not the problem here.
    I personally believe it’s important to “walk the walk,” which is why I do nerdy things like consider the environmental impact of ebook readers. At the same time, I also believe that I can have a much larger impact by helping to motivate large corporations and industries to be better stewards of the environment–which is why I work at TerraPass!

  15. Anonymous - April 27, 2011

    I believe the study includes an estimate of the energy required for “average” use of a Kindle over a four year period, but I doubt phantom energy use from a plug-in charger is considered. Factoring that in, it will take even longer for most people to get environmental benefit out of the device.

  16. Nicole - April 27, 2011

    Jen-reading ebooks on a smartphone you already own is a great idea. I’ve stayed away from it in the past because I was worried I wouldn’t like the reading experience, but you’ve inspired me to give it a try.

  17. jetsetpet - April 27, 2011

    I received my Kindle as a Christmas gift last year. In the 4 months since then, I have read probably 10 e-books. The reason for the Kindle is that I travel abroad extensively, and I cannot carry all the books that I want to read during that time. It is also expensive to purchase English language books abroad. I do miss swapping books with other like-minded readers on my travels, but I find that I read much more this way and don’t have to carry or store books when I am on the go. I turn off the WiFi when I don’t need it, and so a single charge lasts weeks. I do a lot of work on my computer and laptop and couldn’t imagine reading books on my laptop in bed. I also don’t use my smart phone abroad so wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the ebook apps while traveling.
    It would be great to get Kindle books through the library – is this possible?
    Thanks!

  18. Elaine - April 27, 2011

    I’m not sure about the “saving trees” argument. Remember that trees are a renewable resource, and while growing they sequester carbon. If the forests or forest plantations owned by paper companies aren’t being harvested and generating profit, they are vulnerable to development as less-sustainable land uses, such as housing developments, highways and industrial uses.

  19. ellen - April 27, 2011

    I am an avid reader and I get many of my books from a book sharing website called paperbackswap.com, where you can receive used books through the mail and also pass your own books along to others rather than toss them when you are done. It’s a good method of book recycling,

  20. Nicole - April 27, 2011

    My understanding is that the estimated carbon footprint of the Kindle includes energy consumption for an “average” Kindle user over four years time. I doubt it includes phantom energy use from a plug-in charger, which would certainly increase the carbon footprint of the device.

  21. Nicole - April 27, 2011

    While it’s true that permanently converting a forest for development is awful from a climate perspective, it’s definitely not a given that the forests used to supply the paper industry are managed sustainably. There are some certification systems out there (such as the Forest Stewardship Council) which can be used to verify that paper is produced from sustainably managed forests (that more or less perpetually sequester a base level of carbon).
    Still, your larger point holds–if demand for printed books completely disappeared, many forest owners could be forced to develop their forestlands to make ends meet. Hopefully, if the time ever comes that demand for paper products has declined enough to seriously threaten the long-term stability of working forestlands, we’ll have other incentives in place to keep forests standing.

  22. Scott - April 30, 2011

    I charge the Kindle only once per 1-2 weeks, thus am never temped to leave the charger plugged in.

  23. Sarah - May 4, 2011

    Please know that I have re-posted your entry on my blog in the hopes of better promoting ebooks and literacy issues for my school community. I have noted you as the original author at the end of the entry. Thank you for your insightful commentary.

  24. Nicole - May 4, 2011

    Thanks, Sarah!

  25. Anne - May 5, 2011

    It’s interesting reading all the comments from an environmental perspective, but for me reading is as much a tactile experience, as an intellectual one. I like putting two or three fingers on different pages and flipping back and forth as I try to understand something or grasp the larger picture. I’m also an annotator and I like the physical activity of writing in the margins and then sharing those thoughts right along with sharing the book. I like being able to revisit favorite authors, good writing, and refresh my memory by browsing my own shelves. I’m 62 and have been reading all my life. There’s no way I can remember the title and author of all the books I’ve read, so I save those books that matter to me and donate the rest. I try to borrow all the fiction books I read from the library, but wouldn’t trade my leather bound copy of The Three Musketeers for anything. I agree with those who have said the majority of our concern needs to be directed to the worst polluters among us. Meanwhile, we each do what we can. And what exactly will happen to the materials used to make that e-reader when it’s disposed of and what will be their impact on the environment?

  26. Mo - May 19, 2011

    The fastest way to have your Kindle “pay for itself” in environmental costs is to do what I did – buy it used.
    I’ve purchased four in the last two year via Craig’s list (three as gifts). I’ve saved a ton of money, and the last three were all the newest version.