Technology is an integral part of everyday life, from smartphones to tablet, computers and, nowadays, e-readers. In 2007, the activity of reading became digitalised, although many traditionalists still prefer to purchase new novels and the physical feeling of ink and paper.
Whether scrolling down a “page” or opening up a paperback, one chapter yet to be written is which of these two reading methods is best for the environment.
We’ve tried our best to settle the argument below, so whether you’re an avid reader or someone that only loses themselves in the pages when soaking up the holiday sunshine, you best add this to your reading list.
Ebook vs print book statistics
Despite the numerous lockdowns imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation appears to be gripped by printed books now more than ever. More than 212 million print books were sold in 2021 – the highest total of the last decade.
When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, this spearheaded a drive towards ebooks, as shops were closed and deliveries were the victim of severe disruption. With the vast majority of the population stuck indoors with more time than ever before, they turned to the convenience of an ebook. More than 10m ebooks were downloaded in the April that immediately followed – the highest sales month on record.
However, it shouldn’t be assumed that all consumers turned to digital as a last resort. Sales of printed books in 2020 still topped 200 million, the highest number since 2012.
Even though ebooks and audiobooks are certainly gaining in popularity, the feel of reading with a physical book is still a clear winner for many. The most up-to-date research shows that as much as 51% of total book sales come from paperback purchases, with ebooks only accounting for a quarter of the overall book market in the first half of 2021.
How are e-readers made?
When it comes to manufacturing an e-reader, we can straight away eliminate the need for trees, ink, or glue. They’re made using plastics derived from petrochemicals and valuable minerals and metals extracted from the earth, such as copper and lithium.
Some of these chemicals involved in the production are toxic, resulting in air pollution and making conditions such as asthma and chronic coughing even worse.
The manufacturing process expends a considerable amount of energy by using 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels and producing 66 pounds of carbon dioxide – one of the key gases responsible for climate change. Researchers also estimate that almost 299 litres of water are needed to make an e-reader.
Consisting of electronic components (such as the screen, flex circuit connector and lithium-ion battery), all commercial e-readers primarily use the same e-paper screen technology, E INK Carta HD. This improves the sharpness of the text, makes the page turn fast and produces an energy-saving, paper-like display.
Pros and cons of ebooks on the environment
An e-reader can represent an entire bookshelf or library, so straight away, this reduces the environmental burden per book in comparison to amassing them physically. A Kindle with 32 GB of storage allows the storage of up to 15,100 ebooks, making for a great space-saving solution and reducing the amount of waste going to landfill.
One of the biggest advantages of an e-reader is an obvious one – it’s paperless. A single metric tonne of paper requires around 17 trees – an average of 59 kilos of paper per tree. If we assume that an average 400-page paperback weighs about 600 grams, one tree can spawn just under 100 books.
A single e-reader’s total carbon footprint is approximately 168kg. One printed book is around the 7.5kg mark, but will vary depending on the book’s length and type. By using an average of 7.5kg CO2, you would need to read 22-23 books digitally to reach the same environmental impact as reading the same books in print.
Applying this logic, prolific readers would only have to read around 44 ebooks to halve their carbon footprint. With many people enjoying their e-readers for a minimum of four years before replacing them, they have the potential to significantly lessen their CO2 emissions.
Even though you don’t need to step outside your front door to pick up your ebook, air pollution is still a major problem when it comes to e-readers. The entire modern e-reader industry is assembled and manufactured in China. Aircraft rely on fossil fuels for power, so shipping e-readers from the other side of the world will inexorably contribute to climate change.
Like any consumer electronic, e-readers are generally energy-intensive. They require data centres and servers that host ebooks before they’re downloaded, a communication infrastructure to transmit digital files across long distances, and need charging over and over again to keep them functioning.
On the other hand, e-readers come with their own backlight, which is a huge energy saver when reading at night or in dimly lit places.
How are books made?
It’s no secret that the paper industry cuts down trees to manufacture books. The more virgin paper we use, the more trees need felling. Virgin paper doesn’t contain any recycled content and is made directly of the pulp of trees or cotton. With production and transport, the average paperback has gulfed its way through 4.5kWh of energy by the time it lands in the lap of a reader.
Chemicals are then used to enhance the paper quality, with additional chemicals used in the binding glues and inks that make up the feel and look of a hardback.
Even using recycled paper is a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to improving the overall eco-credentials of the production process. Producing a book from recycled paper uses just over 11 ounces of minerals, and seven and a half litres of water.
Pros and cons of books on the environment
If they’re well looked after, physical books have greater longevity than e-readers and can be enjoyed by many different people.
From an environmental perspective, the more people that read the same book, the more its footprint is amortised. For example, if a book is read twice, half the impacts are felt with each use.
As discussed earlier, the production of a single paper book only produces around 7.5kg of carbon dioxide – a total of 100 times fewer greenhouse gases than those caused by the production of a single e-reader.
Paper books contribute heavily to deforestation, which plays a large part in climate change. Up to 14% of deforestation is done to satisfy our need or desire for paper goods. The next step of processing the wood into paper requires a lot of water, energy, and chemicals. In fact, around two glasses of water are required to produce each page of a book.
Weighing up the transportation impact of books is tricky. They can be purchased from a local bookstore (did the consumer drive to the store?) or bought online (did this require transport by air or over land?). Either way, very few literary purchases will be without some combustion of fossil fuels.
A tremendous amount of energy is also wasted in the transportation and disposal of books that are returned to the publisher from the bookstore — major publishers expect around 30% of their books to be returned.
How to recycle an e-reader
If the owner doesn’t take on the responsibility of correctly recycling their e-reader, it’s likely to release toxic fumes and corrosive battery fluids into the atmosphere, waterways and soil, along with potentially polluting ecosystems for generations to come.
The European Recycling Platform site has an in-built recycling locator to find the nearest location to dispose of unwanted tech. Currys also offers free electricals and electronics recycling instore — the brand safely recycles over 65,000 tonnes of waste electronics a year.
How to recycle paperback books
Those with a bibliophilic itch will say it’s a sin to throw a book away. Charity shops have to dispose of an estimated 50,000 tonnes of unsold books every year.
Sending unwanted reads to WeBuyBooks is a great way to recycle the books you longer need, with the incentive of getting a little bit of cash for them. Sites such as Bookmooch.com are perfect for swapping novels, stories, and textbooks.
Local authorities can also provide guidance on the nearest book recycling bin.
What is the most eco-friendly option for reading?
The thought of going paperless will send shivers down the spine of printed book aficionados who want nothing more than that fresh book smell and a physical collection that takes pride of place on their shelves.
If we were to turn our attention to the planet, buying physical copies of books favours the occasional reader as they won’t make enough use of an e-reader to pay back the total carbon footprint.
Others also opt to support FSC certified publishers that ensure responsible use of forest resources. Of course, there’s always the option of joining the library.
As for e-readers, using e-readers to the end of their natural lives ensures that they are as economical as possible.