Digital books: greener than real books

Written by adam


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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  1. Tom Harrison

    I have been thinking about Kindle, MP3, movies and various other digital media formats.
    I long ago canceled by NY Times and Wall St. Journal paper subscriptions. I have canceled as many paper catalogs as possible. I have almost all my bills sent by email. The decrease in paper going into the trash is truly remarkable.
    And for entertainment, I was able to finally get over my CD fixation when Apple removed their copy protection (which prevented me from playing my music on one of the players we own). Now I buy albums online through iTunes.
    And we have been watching about 1/2 of the movies we normally rent from Netflix on their digital streaming format (the other half are not available because their owners are concerned about copy protection). Even in this case, the efficiency is pretty clear: whereas a physical disc would be sent to and from my house by postal mail, a digital stream is sent. Electrons are very portable indeed.
    And while I don’t own a Kindle, Amazon provides a Kindle app for the iPhone, and we have used that for a number of books … to my surprise. My son was reading a series of kids’ books and he is able to download the books almost instantly (and consume them in a matter of days). They would probably not have been passed on and instead had their physical manifestations gone to waste.
    And what’s interesting is that all of these new formats are not only free of the limitations and shortcomings of their physicality, they are less expensive, almost instantly available, and viewable in numerous formats.
    I am a bit nostalgic about those vinyl albums, cassette tapes, and many, many books that fill our shelves. There’s something different about their presence than the virtual presence of digital media. It’s not the same, but for any of the ways it’s not quite as good as the original, it’s far better in some other ways.
    One of those ways is that digital media is inherently replicable and nearly costless. That makes a good deal, in my book.

  2. Lauren

    In my experience, displacing 23 books a year is not really a problem for an avid reader and I suspect most people willing to purchase a Kindle are avid readers. I have had my Kindle for two months now and have read about 15 books on it in those two months. In the course of a year I will probably read 75 books or so. I think my reading has actually picked up as I no longer have to drive to the bookstore and look for a new book, which often ends in frustation as they might not have the book I want in stock and I may end up ordering the book. I also no longer have the stack of finished books piling up in my house, making me feel guilty about the trees killed to make the books. I still buy hardcopy books that are heavy illustrated, but the Kindle has completely replaced the hardcopy fiction books I used to buy. I would feel a little conflicted if I was no longer going to a local book store but in my area they have all been forced out by the chains like Borders and Barnes and Nobles.

  3. Betsey

    This is interesting but based on false premises- that every time someone reads a book, he or she buys it new and does not share, or sell, or give it away. In order to make a good analysis, you need to consider all these possibilities. Most importantly, you need to consider the possibility that many people borrow books from libraries, where one book might be read by hundreds of people.

  4. Shelley

    Wondering if a print-on-demand solution could also solve the problem of so many books being printed on the assumption they would be bought and read. That seems wasteful. I really like to have a physical book in my hands and relish this time away from my computer, and love using the library.

  5. Jacquelyn Gill

    Betsey – the study’s researchers very likely did some kind of research (focus groups, surveys, etc.) to determine the reading habits of Kindle buyers. If you’re a Kindle owner, you’re buying books on a regular basis, and so were more likely to have been doing so in the past. I don’t own a Kindle, but my household definitely buys more than 23 books in a year, AND I use the library weekly.
    I thought immediately of textbooks, and how the new large Kindle is better formatted for textbook and newspaper reading. College textbooks are obsolete after a year – think of the footprint they must have! If those were accounted for, I’d imagine e-readers would be even greener.

  6. acnjfan

    College textbooks are the obvious target to go digital, they are already obscenely expensive and frequently updated. I won’t question the motives, but once a new edition is printed, the college bookstores won’t even buy back the older versions so students just junk them. Having moved several years ago to a smaller home, by choice, I have rediscovered the pleasure of the local library and am always amazed at the selection of books, movies and cds they carry. I limit the amount of media I bring into my home simply because I don’t want to store it, dust it, or have to decide whether or not to keep it.
    Introduce your children to the library at an early age and they will not only become avid readers, but I would suggest, avid citizens.

  7. Ben Mordecai

    Minutia. I’m not going to feel guilty if I read 100 books a year and lob them in the trash after.

  8. Erin

    College textbooks already have e-book options; they are considerably cheaper for the students, but the students have often already bought the print version before they find out about the e-books. The issue there is to make the students aware of that as an option BEFORE they buy the book. You can see where the college bookstores would have issues cutting into their own profits, since the e-book only produces profits for the publishers.

  9. masa

    How about if you update your Kindle once a year? Gadget lovers (which fit closely to the people that would buy a Kindle) would probably buy a new Kindle every time Amazon makes a new one.
    I don’t see how it reduces computer usage. Book usage, yes. Because you’re reading less books on your computer? Hardly.
    Just saying – it’s not as green as you would hope. Greener, maybe, although I would dare say, the library would get less usage, which is worse overall if it ends up reducing funding for the library, hurting non-Kindle users.

  10. Anonymous

    Lauren, I’m curious. I read that Kindle captures your reading preferences and uses the information for marketing ploys, etc. Is this true?

  11. Adam Stein

    Oh, it definitely cuts down on my computer use. I no longer read long-form magazine or newspaper articles on my laptop. Instead I do this nerdy thing where I use Instapaper to send them to my Kindle. It’s quite handy.
    I kind of doubt people will replace their Kindles annually. They’re expensive gadgets, and the upgrades don’t do anything significantly cooler than the older models. I’m hoping mine has three years of life in it.

  12. Heather

    This is a great idea but I’m sad to say it would make the book quite costly. The cost of setting up and running just one book would be very high. If they wait for an order for more books you could be waiting 6 months for your book. I don’t know about you, but I’m not big on waiting.
    There really is nothing like holding a book in your hand and that wonderful smell. Try a used book-store. We have a great one a few towns over that has all the classics and new releases plus a few you end up buying “just cause”.

  13. Michael Beilfuss

    Do you ever consider how much energy goes into running your pc or lap top all day so you can read, listen, and watch? And what about all the giant servers around the country and the world that run 24/7, sucking up fossil fuels. I feel like that end of the carbon footprint is often ignored when people talk about the foot print of e-books and online billing etc. Trees are a renewable resource. So far coal and oil are not. Maybe once we use wind and solar more widely the constantly running computers and servers will be more eco-friendly. But for now I’m sticking with the stable and permanent book, not a bunch of bytes that run on oil and coal.

  14. SLS

    POD publishing is actually extremely cost-prohibitive for publishers.

  15. Dan Kirkpatrick

    I purchased a Kindle over a year ago and have read 65 books during that time (just checked since reading this article). My reading habits have not been limited to the Kindle because I have continued to buy and read hard covers and paperbacks.
    Audio books were introduced in the 90s and never became a force with use of a computer. No one talked about them like they have with the Kindle and other ebooks. Marketplace forces at work.
    My life’s work has been centered around the use of computers. There was an “old” adage “not everything belongs on a computer.” Since that time, I believe it is the most abused bit of wisdom ever.
    However, the idea to limit one’s reading, research, seeking to expand experiences to one form of media is like shooting self not in the foot, but in the head.
    Affordability and the marketplace could determine how we will be able to satisfy our need to read and write in the future. Hopefully, not. I want all of it available to use. Environmental problems can all be solved if we just work on them hard enough.

  16. Ron L

    I really like this idea….problem is that Amazon deletes your books from your kindle with no warning. If they didn’t have this practice then it would be a viable option for me.

  17. Janet C

    How wasteful. Why not give them away?

  18. Janet C

    I’ve had a Kindle for almost two years and nothing has been deleted from it by Amazon. if this did happen to anyone, the books can be redownloaded without cost. I’ve downloaded to my iPhone books previously purchased for my Kindle at no extra cost. Amazon is easy to work with.

  19. Penny

    Hi Ron,
    I have had a Kindle for almost a year. No one has deleted anything from my Kindle – unless I deleted it myself. In fact you have your own account at Amazon for ‘your’ Kindle and if you delete something and want it back you can get it back very easily. Never believe anything unless it has happened to you and even then check it out before talking about it.
    I have four pages of already read material on my Kindle and if I want to delete it to make it easier for me I can.
    In 2007 I emptied my home of over 1,000 books that I had read over the years. I donated them to the library. They sell them at book sales. I made a rule that I cannot buy more than 2 books a month — hard copy that is. I still go to the library but sometimes the wait for what I want to read is months. So I really love my Kindle.
    And to the Anon. poster…live off the grid if you like, but I’d rather be pestered online than in my snail mail box.
    I’m 65 and got past all the B….ing about having some to hold. I try to live “lite”.

  20. Ron L

    Just do a search on Google for Deleted Books by Amazon. There are class action lawsuits and a co-worker of mine just had one of his books removed ‘mysteriously’. I’m glad it has not happened to you but Amazon is admitting to it.

  21. Dan Kirkpatrick

    To Whom it may concern:
    There was an issue about digital rights that was involved with a third party and it affected some material that was downloaded to customers without proper licensing. It was recalled by deletion of the product from customer’s Kindle. It was a mistake and apologized for the high-handed manner in which it took action. It will end up being a good thing for customers because they have promised in the future not to do a repeat without notifying customers first. I have dealt with since the very early days and overall you cannot find a company that is willing to improve their products such as they have. Unlike the drug companies, the oil companies, the insurance industry and other scumbags in our over bloated society. I am glad they are here and they are surviving in this twisted world.

  22. VB

    Being green is more than a carbon footprint. What about the toxic materials that go into making Kindles and the ewaste they generate?
    I’ll stick to regular books and when I’m done I donate them to the local library to put on their shelves or sell if they see fit so that the library has more money.

  23. Heather

    Or at least recycle them, please!

  24. Dave

    Better yet, take them to the Good Will store. Not only will others get to read them, you’ll help keep people employed and be able to write them off on your taxes. That way everybody wins, even you.

  25. Dave

    The digital rights issue was about a third party supplier approved by Amazon who sold copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but didn’t have the rights to do so. So, Amazon expunged all copies originating from that seller. It made big news. I’m not sure if they ever replaced those copies with legitimate ones, but in my opinion, they should. I don’t imagine one has to worry about Amazon removing legal copies of a book.

  26. Ben Mordecai

    I wouldn’t literally throw them away, but my point was that the carbon of a couple books is nothing that should make me feel guilty.

  27. Anonymous

    I just received a Kindle as a birthday present and carry it with me all the time. Since I know that I can easily obtain favorite books on the Kindle, I am donating my used books to Goodwill, where I hope they will be enjoyed by others. Although the library is a terrific resource, my local library is not within walking distance. Checking out a book therefore requires that I drive to and from the library. The Kindle not only eliminates the expense and waste associated with book publishing, it also eliminates the use of gas required to drive to bookstores and libraries. For an avid reader, it seems that the Kindle must be the greener alternative.

  28. David V

    The Kindle might be the newest ebook reader, but it is not the only one. I have been reading e-books on my Palm and now my iPhone for at least 5 years, getting books from several sources (many of them less expensive than what is offered by Amazon). I have read 265 books from one source since 2004, and at least 50 or 60 others from another source. I can carry these all around in my pocket if I want to.
    The Palm and the iPhone serve other purposes, and while they may not be “perfect” ebook readers they certainly work very well. Using the device for many functions is more efficient .
    For those of you that don’t like the idea of using energy to read, that is fine, but I would ask you if you ever read at night, and do you use a light?
    I will continue to use the iPhone to read Kindle and other formatted e-books. With my solar powered house I will not feel too guilty.

  29. Anonymous

    Yes, and there’s always that completely discounted option: the library. I rarely buy any of the books I read.

  30. Wendy Smith

    My thoughts exactly. Although the publisher is not recompensed when other means of obtaining a paper book are used, whereas with Kindle the publisher is recompensed for each person who gets a copy.

  31. Woody

    By such reasoning, Mordecai, you (and I and everyone else) can drive a Hummer and never recycle so much as a soda can. Minutia??

  32. Tina

    This was my thought also. In addition, it would be interesting to see the disposal/breakdown of the Kindle vs. a book. It seems that manufacture and disposal of the Kindle is not taken into account here.

  33. Wendy Smith

    I agree, Tina. Books are 100% recyclable and made from mostly all-natural materials. A lot of the paper used now is from lumber farms within the US. I don’t even know where they make the Kindles.
    Also I am publishing a book about colors, and while I would like to use the most environmentally sound production methods, it seems that paper in the end serves the purpose best, at least for my books. With kindle it’s harder to know your place in the book and flip back and forth to compare color schemes.
    However I’m open-minded. I recall the first computers, and the first Model T and no one would like them today. So maybe Kindle is better for the future but I don’t think so right now, for my publishing efforts.

  34. spinoza

    I know the response will be “every little bit helps”, but in the big scheme of things book publishing is a tiny drop in the proverbial world of tree-cutting: I just read that Ikea is printing some *200 million* copies of its 2010 catalog! Multiply this by the 1000s of these mega corporations that exist in the world, and you begin to get an idea of the scope of the trees felled and the paper pulp generated annually. Just think of all the ad inserts (BestBuy, Walmart, ad nauseum) that get thrown away, untouched, each week from the Sunday newspaper.
    Viewed from this perspective, the question of Kindles vs printed books becomes a rather trivial exercise in and of itself, but when considered as part of a more expansive trend with the Internet and electronic publishing as a whole, then I see a tremendous opportunity here to quickly eradicate the current insanity regarding print media. Wouldn’t it be great if we could replace all this senseless tree-cutting and wholesale destruction of nature by digital means?
    I’m confident we’re quickly headed in this direction, and that a time will come when we’ll regard print media as a quaint throwback, much like we consider the horse and buggy. The economics of this is driving this trend faster than we think–I just purchased a book that retails for $28 in print, but was able to buy it for $9.99 for my Sony Reader. Who except a nostalgia-loving luddite is going to pay $2.50 for a flimsy paper version of the NY Times when he can get several times the content online for free? For authors like Wendy wanting to publish an image-heavy book on colors, then doing so on the Web is far more powerful than any printed book in terms of image quality.

  35. Wendy Smith

    Dear Spinoza, I read your comments with interest. I agree about the newspapers. You can be very selective, too, in what you read that way.
    But about my book. Spinoza, not so. Some of my colors are distorted in an electronic version and not subtle, detailed, involving or true. You can’t flip pages or remember where in the book you were when comparing several things at once (supposedly there is a solution to that, but I haven’t found it adequate). Also it’s less interesting electronically and more impersonal. These are things that detract. I find that e-books follow the path of other successful online publishing, and that is, black and white books that serve more as user manuals or instruction books work great. I don’t think electronic will ever entirely replace paper, and most people are coming around to an appreciation of both. Sincerely, WENDY J. SMITH

  36. spinoza

    Wendy, your planned book on color is a good example of the challenges currently confronting authors. A “traditional” print publication on color will be both expensive to produce and will have a limited audience because of the necessary high price to sell it at a modest profit. A high-quality, fully illustrated book on color that is brought out by a major art house publisher will cost in the $50-$100 range, with current prices gravitating to the higher end of that scale. At that price it will be mostly libraries purchasing the book, with individual purchasers probably numbering in the low 100s.
    As you’ve noted, dedicated ebook readers like the Kindle are not adequate for such a publication as yours. Ebook readers work well for books that possess a linear narrative, like fiction and most non-fiction narratives. They don’t work well for “non-linear” books like reference works and highly illustrated books like art works, guides, and manuals.
    Contrary to what you think, the Web is an excellent publishing medium for highly illustrated works. Color reproduction is generally good to excellent on today’s LCD displays (and can be controlled by calibration devices by serious users). Most importantly, unlike printed publications the author is not limited by extreme space constraints in the size and number of illustrations: on the Web an author can reproduce as many images as she wishes, and in a much wider range of sizes. There are a number of other advantages with Web publishing, such as its non-linear nature, thus encouraging serendipity and exploring, and it being full-text searchable.
    All of these are important factors to consider, but the most significant when considering the Web vis a vis print is that of access. While only a few hundred people may end up making use of your printed book, on the Web your publication will most likely be used by a few hundred people *a week*. This is a profoundly dramatic difference, and it permits your knowledge and experience to be shared by a much larger number of people.
    The greatest problem with the Web right now is that most authors over 30 still do not consider their work “published” unless it is in print. The questions of “flipping pages” or “comparing several things at once” are ergonomic ones that pose psychological barriers to many people over 30 or 40, but for most younger people, the Web is far superior ergonomically. I can organize my thoughts and work much more powerfully with my computer than with the chaotic nature of printed material.
    Teachers are more aware of this transformation to digital than others: increasingly for students if information is not available on the Web, it doesn’t exist. I’ve been publishing my doctoral dissertation on the Web, and it’s been getting several hundred visitors a month, even though it is still incomplete. It’s on a highly specialized topic, so if I had published it as a printed dissertation, I would have had a few dozen scholars make use of it, at best.

  37. Wendy Smith

    Hey, you are treading on ground that is not yours. I have been researching and confronting this for years, and found that paper IS the best medium, although electronic media is cheaper. The latter is not as appropriate for my work, with which you actually know nothing. So until you see my book in print, I would like you to stop trying to give me advice about stuff you don’t know. The cost of my printed book perfect bound is well within most people’s means and cannot be described as “expensive.”