General Question

Bellatrix's avatar

From an environmental perspective, which is the 'greener' choice an electronic book reader or a hard copy novel?

Asked by Bellatrix (21146 points ) November 26th, 2011

I am torn. I am not talking about textbooks here because they create a whole range of different discussion points. I am particularly concerned about novels.

On the one hand I love ‘real’ books. However, I am very conscious that to produce those books many trees are cut down and pulped. Since I now often buy my novels on-line and they are then shipped from the UK or the US to Australia, this also adds to their environmental cost. And mostly, once I have read the book I put it on a shelf and never pick it up again. I may share it with a friend or family member though. So a paper book can be recycled. We have had other threads here about the value second-hand books can have in the prison system or for organisations that help people to read etc.

On the flip side, if I buy an electronic book reader they are an electronic piece of equipment that must be produced. Often this is done in third world countries with labour conditions that would not be permitted here. Long days, repetitive work and serious health concerns. Similarly, when the reader no longer works it has to be disposed of and again, often electronic equipment is sent to become land fill in countries where the health concerns they can create are not so considered as in Australia. I can also not share my book with other people. I can’t recycle it and pass it on so that multiple readers can share my purchase.

So which do you think is the better option from an environmental/human perspective and why? If I want to be environmentally friendly, do I buy a paper book or a Nook?

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18 Answers

CWOTUS's avatar

If our economic systems weren’t screwed up with false incentives, reverse incentives, well-meaning regulations with uncalculated and unintended consequences, questions such as this would be the simplest question in the world to answer. The answer would be: whatever is cheapest. That’s how I always answer these questions, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to attempt a cost-benefit analysis (other than dollar cost) on every purchase I make for the rest of my life.

See how simple? Book publishing on paper has certain costs, from the paper and ink and binding materials, the transportation of those items to the publishing plant, physical creation of the book and shipment, distribution, marketing and retailing of the bound copy. (After it’s purchased, then it’s yours to do with – and dispose of – as you will.)

Electronic publishing should also have included in its cost per copy all of the goods and services (all of the electrons, including their generation and transmittal). (The electronic versions include ‘free’ transmittal via various means – WiFi or 3G, for example – which are not paid for by the purchaser in the cost of the transmitted copy.)

That doesn’t quite answer your question, I know.

The reader has a one-time cost of purchase, even with zero books, and the per-copy cost of the e-books is nearly comparable to the printed copies you can buy. So on the face of it, the e-reader is maybe not the best way to go if you don’t read a lot. However, if you read a lot of books, the e-reader really makes up for its initial purchase cost by enabling you to shop without traveling to a bookstore. That in itself makes it a great deal, I think. I love my Nook®.

In addition, an e-reader allows you to “carry” a lot of books in a package that only weighs as much as the reader itself, and that’s a big potential savings, too.

Bellatrix's avatar

Thank you @CWOTUS. That’s not quite what I was asking though. If it was just an economic cost, I would probably say for me a real book would be cheaper. I can order books and there is now free delivery. There is then no bill for visiting the shops or for batteries or electricity either. All it costs me is the power it takes to fire up my laptop and the cost of the actual book. This is a real question for me. I am very torn about whether to buy a reader or stick with books.

I do take your point that the costs to produce an e-book are often forgotten. I do think the actual prices charged for e-books compared to a real book are inflated. Why should I pay $15 for an e-book when I can pay $15 for a real, hard copy book?

The actual economic costs are not my concern though. I am more interested in the environmental costs. I love the idea of an e-reader. I can see why people love them. I am just trying to weigh up those unseen costs to the environment and other humans of paper books and e-books.

blueiiznh's avatar

From a person to person basis it depends on how many books you read on average. Unless you’re a fast and furious reader, the energy required to manufacture and then dispose of an e-reader is probably greater than what’s needed to make a traditional book. If you’re reading 40 or more books per year on your e-reader, that would be the right choice. But if you use it only occasionally, probably better to stick to a “regular” book.

Here are a couple of studies with interestingly different perspectives and results:

http://www.terrapass.com/blog/posts/digital-books-greener-than-real-books

http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/are-e-readers-greener-than-books/

gailcalled's avatar

I solve the problem by getting all my real books, DVDs. books on CDs, magazines and newspapers from our local library, which has a wonderful inter-library lending system.

Bellatrix's avatar

Thank you Gail and I was just saying to my husband, the really green thing would probably be to go to the library! I like the idea of an e-book reader because they are so convenient and portable but I am trying to be more considerate in terms of my own consumerism and what goods I buy and why.

Thank you @blueiiznh. You just added even more layers. The difference between renewable fuel such as trees and the use of fossil fuels such as oil and coal etc. And of course, how many books you consume in a year.

gailcalled's avatar

@Bellatrix: Milo here; Gail’s solution also means that she doesn’t have to dust so often and can spend more time vacuuming my stray cat hairs off the floor and rugs.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Almost everything in almost all books is biodegradable. Electronic book readers are not biodegradable. Draw your own conclusions.

rooeytoo's avatar

I just searched for 11/22/63 Stephen King’s book
fishpond.com 25.97 paperback free shipping
hard cover from use 34.20 free shipping
hard cover from UK 37.99 free shipping
amazon 19.25 hardcover plus shipping and I didn’t bother to find out how much that is.

So I bought it from Kobo for 9.99

I get annoyed when so many titles are not available in Australia for so long after being published. But again, on Kobo it doesn’t seem to matter where I am, they are most all available. I read Kobo on my laptop or iPhone.

Aethelflaed's avatar

I can also not share my book with other people. I can’t recycle it and pass it on so that multiple readers can share my purchase. Not true. Amazon has a lending program for many of their ebooks (don’t have any idea about other providers). And you always can share the book with other people, even if it’s sometimes in a legal gray area. And lots of libraries now have ebooks that people can check out instantly.

perspicacious's avatar

hard copy novel

ETpro's avatar

@Bellatrix Great question. It sent me to GOogle, where I learned that the jury still isn’t in/ The best answer I could find is that e-books are probably greener if you buy new, but buying a used dead-tree book is definitely the greenest way to keep reading—if not keep your favorite autohrs happy. http://www.greenlivingonline.com/article/are-e-books-environmental-choice

@CWOTUS I disagree with your conclusion that left to its own devices and with no regulation, the free market always selects the greenest alternative. Believing that is what brought us acid rain killing huge areas of our national forests, rivers that routinely caught on fire, and toxic air that killed big city residents with respiratory problems on bad air days. It’s almost always cheaper and more profitable to belch industrial wastes into the air and water than to clean up your act.

jrpowell's avatar

With the newer eBook readers like the Kindle Fire/Nook/iPad you can also browse the web. Those work perfectly fine for things like Facebook and Fluther. They use a lot less electricity than a computer so if you start to lump all that together it makes the eBook readers greener.

ETpro's avatar

@Aethelflaed Good point. If it’s true, as the source I linked above says, that buying used books is greener than an eReader, then it follows that passing your new paper book on to others is greener as well. And let’s not forget that most paper producers now plant more than one tree for every one they cut. So calling the industry “dead tree” might be a misnomer.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@ETpro Not necessarily. For physical copies, you can only share that each copy with one person at a time. For a digital copy, you can (theoretically) share it with all 7 billion people on the planet at once. The cost of creating a digital copy is the same whether you share it once or twice or a thousand times, especially assuming all those people will have a computer or ereader anyway. Now, that unlimited sharing has some other downsides, but none in the environmental concerns area.

ETpro's avatar

You can’t share an eBook legally with anyone except by letting them borrow your reader. THe files have embedded digital rights management (DRM) to prevent emailing copies to all your friends, or to the entire planet. Hacking the DRM is a criminal offense.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@ETpro It’s not quite so cut-and-dry. Amazon has a lending program in which I could lend you my copy of Tina Fey’s memoir even though you live no where near me. Libraries also can lend digital copies. Not all the files have DRM, like books for which the copyright has expired. Hacking the DRM is not always a criminal offense, nor is sharing the files – again, legal gray area. Removing DRM is usually against the EULA/Terms & Conditions, but that’s a civil matter, not a criminal matter (and often unenforceable by law – if the EULA says you have to pull down your pants every time you’re around the CEO, and then you don’t, you don’t need to worry about cops showing up to arrest you). And as of July 20, 2010, a federal court ruled that simply removing the DRM is not an illegal offense so long as you own the file or softward or whatever legally and do not plan to use the newly free file in copyright-circumventing ways. I’m not saying it’s totally cool, I’m just pointing out that the law isn’t really clear on this, nor is it consistently defined and applied over the globe (or even in the Western world…), and the legal issues are not the same as environmental issues, which is the issue the question asked about.

Mariah's avatar

It doesn’t make sense to compare one e-reader to one novel, because one e-reader can store thousands of books. I think therefore the e-reader is a lot more environmentally friendly because a lot of trees have to die to create thousands of books.

lonelydragon's avatar

Probably the e-reader because it needs to be charged periodically with electricity.

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