E-Readers vs. Real Books: Which Really Has The Smaller Footprint?

Next time you’re in an airport or coffee shop, look around you. Besides all of the laptops and smartphones, you’re likely to see lots of people holding e-book readers. Although the paper book used to be a staple in these lounge environments, it’s been supplanted by these slim, page-less alternatives. There’s no arguing that e-books are lighter, more efficient and more versatile than printed books, but does that really make them better for the environment?

Many have touted e-books as the eco-friendly reading material for the 21st century. Since a single e-reader can hold digital copies of hundreds of books, there’s no doubt that more than a few trees have been spared since they became mainstream. In 2009, a study  analyzing the Amazon Kindle electronic book reader’s impact on the environment suggested that, on average, the carbon emitted over the life of the device is offset after the first year of use (approximately 23 downloads). But while a paper-and-ink book requires no batteries and can be easily recycled when too dog-eared to read, the same can’t be said for their high-tech counterparts.

E-readers and real books

Image via Shutterstock

Like many of the mobile devices that accompany us everywhere these days, e-readers like the Amazon Kindle or Barns & Noble Nook are extremely resource intensive to manufacture and distribute. As Michael Smith of the Green Review points out, “E-book readers are, predominately, made of non-renewable and thus non-sustainable resources and in addition to that they need a power source in the form of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery” — which is also made from rare and non-renewable materials. Trees, while precious and dwindling in numbers, are a renewable resource that supports a cleaner environment during its entire maturation process. There have also been advances that allow high quality post-consumer content recycled paper to be produced at an affordable price. But the complicated matter of choosing the reading material with the lowest carbon footprint isn’t just about the paper.

In fact, a recent editorial in the New York Times identified no fewer than five criteria on which e-readers and real books must be compared in order to determine which is most environmentally friendly: materials, manufacturing, transportation, reading, and disposal.

Keep reading to find out how e-readers ranked against printed books, and which you should choose to slim down your footprint.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog