From: Editor, Sierra Club Green Home, More from this Affiliate
Published January 12, 2011 10:00 AM

E-readers vs. old fashioned books—which is greener?

A relatively new phenomenon is the E-Reader, be it Kindle, iPad, or a number of other new competitors coming into the marketplace. When you think about it, these devices would seem to be more environmentally friendly than your typical paper and cardboard book, even a paperback. Should we be buying our loved ones e-readers or traditional books this holiday season?


There is a certain tactile value to "real" books, just feeling the paper, turning the pages. I find that I miss this when using an e-reader. But on the surface, the e-reader would seem to be much more green. In fact, my colleague "Mr. Green" at Sierra Magazine recently explored this dilemma and came to a surprising conclusion, which I will reveal momentarily.

E-reader vs. paper book is a provocative question, one that could just as easily have been "do your prefer flying cars or conventional road going cars" a few short years ago. The key to the answer is that basic tenet of sustainability, life cycle analysis. We must consider not only the trees needed to make paper versus the manufacturing of electronics products, but the shipping costs, fuel, and ultimately, the energy needed to recycle these materials at the end of their days. Not to mention, what ultimately happens to e-waste? Where do the non-recyclable remains end up?

Mr. Green's conclusion – as well as a recent New York Times piece on the same subject — was that 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. This conclusion is reinforced by a study referenced on the website of TerraPass, a carbon offset business. Unfortunately, the study itself is not available for publication but its authors said e-readers are the more environmentally responsible choice only if you are reading in excess of 23 books per year.

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