Are E-Books Really Better for the Environment?

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We’re made to think it’s a no-brainer – that e-books are greener than print books, because paper production has a greater footprint than producing the technology. Right? As the leading digital publisher for children’s music education, we clearly believe that the benefits of digital publishing have educational and environmental advantages. We’ve saved nearly five millions sheets of paper each year since 2011, when we released our first Kindermusik@Home digital products. But, as educators, constantly probing beyond the surface of these tough, nebulous issues, we wanted to dig into the reason why e-books really are better for the environment.
In short: replacing all printed materials with one Kindle has less environmental impact, because the energy needed to create the Kindle is less than the energy needed to produce thousands of paper pages.
Printed books result in the emission of almost four times the amount of greenhouse gases than e-readers. They also emit larger quantities of ozone-depleting substances and chemicals associated with acidification through their life cycles.
This surprised us for three main reasons:

  1. Technology has a lot of parts. It’s complicated to make, and complicated to produce the materials. That must require more energy than producing paper and ink, right?
  2. We assumed e-books created more toxic, less biodegradable trash.
  3. We assumed making “more” of something – i.e. producing more tablets, ipads, and other digital templates – was worse than sticking with books.

To point number one: on average, each ton of paper produces 3,300 kg of emissions, consumes 18 trees, 67,500 liters of water and 9,500 kWh of power. Beyond that, there are carbon costs of driving to get book after book, as opposed to clicking “purchase.” According to Green Lifestyle, using a Kindle saves you an average of 168kg of greenhouse gas emissions a year (if you don’t buy any paper books). The bottom line is that the eco costs of producing enough paper to supply paper publishing demands outweighs the costs of producing the technology for digital formats.
To point two: it’s true that digital formats have a less eco-friendly finale. The vast majority of printed books are retained, sold or donated, rather than being discarded. In Australia, where this article was published, 92% of households recycle or reuse paper products. Generally, unsold books are returned to paper mills where they are pulped and recycled into other products. While the commodity aspect of technology always makes us want the latest and greatest, those of us truly in it for the environmental benefits should consider keeping one template until it reaches its true end.
Our last point, that creating “more” is always worse than creating less, is true. Unfortunately, though – “not creating” is impossible. Humans are consumers. But think of it this way. The first computer was over 1800 square feet and weighed 27 tons. That’s a lot of rare-earth metals used for one computer! What defines technological innovation is “less with more.” For every Kindle or iPad out there, there are thousands of apps. It’s becoming less about what you’re using, but what you’re using your Kindle for. To read new books, you need to get more stuff. To read new e-books, you don’t.

Thanks a lot @_sarahwilson_ for writing the article that inspired this post. Click here to read her full article, “what’s better for the environment: ebooks or print books?”

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