Paper books gained popularity during the Middle Ages when they began replacing parchment due to the lower cost of paper. Traditional books as we know them today have been around since the invention of the printing press around the year 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg, which brought books into the industrial age, making them cheaper to produce and more accessible to the masses. As people have become more environmentally aware, we have had to look at the environmental impact of our beloved printed books. Today, most agree that we should use recycled paper to reduce deforestation linked to the publication of books, and many are making the switch to soy inks from petroleum-based inks. After several hundred years of traditional books, technology is once again changing the landscape of books as we know them.
The recent introduction of electronic book devices has made books even more accessible and less expensive. Some also believe that they are a green alternative to printed books. But are they really better for the environment?
Printed books have the highest per unit carbon footprint in the publishing sector. Paper production requires large amounts of energy, wood and water, making it the fourth largest industrial source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The biggest part of the book industry’s carbon foot print is due to the large amount of water used and the impacts of forest harvesting; 40% of the industrial wood harvest is used to make paper. The printing step to turn paper into books uses less water and energy than paper production, however paper bleaching and ink production release many volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere and water, including hexane, chlorine, toluene and xylene, which contribute to smog and respiratory issues. The transportation of printed books also contributes to their environmental impact, as well as books that are wasted. Many printed books are never sold and often wind up in landfills, or at best are recycled. Paper makes up 26% of landfills and its degradation produces methane, a greenhouse gas with twenty three times the heat trapping capacity of carbon dioxide. According to the environmental consulting firm Cleantech, “A single book generates about 7.5 kilograms (almost 17 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalents.”
Electronic Book Devices
Nowadays, there are several different electronic book readers to choose from: Kindle, Nook Ereader, Samsung E60, the Apple iPad… At first glance, they may appear to be greener and more eco friendly than a traditional book. However, the reading devices (like computers) are not as green as ebooks themselves, but you need them to read your digital books. Electronic book devices are built from non-renewable resources (traditional plastic and lithium batteries, for instance) and may contain toxic substances. They are often made at a great distance from home, quickly become out-dated, and are difficult to recycle. By contrast, paper is derived mostly from a renewable resource and is easily recycled. Over 60% of paper is recycled, compared to 20% of electronic devices. Moreover, a book lasts “forever”, you can sell it, give it away, or keep it in your library, whereas the life expectancy for your online ebook library is no more than 10 years.
So, which is better for the environment?
Avid readers are making a green choice if they buy an ereader. Apple’s iPad generates 130 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents during its lifetime, and the Amazon Kindle, around 168 kilograms. So, you would have to read approximately 18 to 25 books to offset the global warming emissions created by making and using the device, according to Cleantech. In 2010, 79,200,000 electronic books had been sold on Amazon and iTunes. If we consider each digital version prevented a book from being printed and sold, 1,267,200 trees had been saved.
In a nutshell, electronic books are a good choice for people who read a lot because they can help preserve the environment by saving energy, reducing paper production and reducing the pollution emitted by traditional book manufacturing. They also help save consumers money over time because ebooks are less expensive than physical books. However, for the occasional reader, a greener choice would be borrowing books from a library or buying used books, which help offset past emissions and avoid the further depletion of our precious resources.