Various arguments for e-readers are that they are great for the environment. You aren't buying a printed book so that's surely saving the destruction of trees and pollution from paper mills, right? Wrong. Well, maybe. For as many positive environmental e-reader arguments there seems to be just as many counterarguments.
Joe Hutsko of the New York Times stated in his article, "Are E-readers Greener Than Books":
"A new study analyzing the Amazon Kindle electronic book reader’s impact on the environment suggests that, on average, the carbon emitted over the life of the device is offset after the first year of use."
Bill Henderson, author of "Books Without Batteries: The Negative Impacts of Technology", takes a more negative position against e-readers. He sums up what it takes to make both forms of reading novels:
"Here's what an e-reader is: a battery-operated slab, about a pound, one-half inch thick, perhaps with an aluminum border, rubberized back, plastic, metal, silicon, a bit of gold, plus rare metals such as columbite-tantalite (Google it) ripped from the earth, often in war-torn Africa. To make one e-reader requires 33 pounds of minerals, plus 79 gallons of water to refine the minerals and produce the battery and printed writing. (...) Here's what it takes to make a book, which, if it is any good, will be shared by many readers and preserved and appreciated in personal, public, and university libraries that survive the gigantic digital book burning: recycled paper, a dash of minerals, and two gallons of water. Batteries not necessary. If trees are harvested, they can be replanted."
Now this is all true, trees can be replanted after harvest however trees take years to grow to a mature enough state to be harvested once more. That, in no way, means that the pollution created from e-readers is entirely okay. I feel that whether the environmental issues caused from books or e-readers are both bad, but in this scenario I feel that we have to favor the 'lesser of evils'.
Bill Henderson fails to mention that printed books have the highest per-unit carbon footprint.
“In 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention wastewater that was produced or its massive carbon footprint. (...) In the case of a book bought at a bookstore,” Ms. Ritch said, Cleantech’s measurement “takes into account the fossil fuels necessary to deliver to the bookstore and the fact that 25-36 percent of those books are then returned to the publisher, burning more fossil fuels. (...) Right now, e-books are having effectively no positive impact on the environment,” she said, nor will they “unless publishers print fewer books in anticipation of e-book sales.” - The New York Times
It's unfortunate but there are very few books that are made out of recycled paper. Often times if they are it is broadcasted across the cover and amongst the publication information. But it's a rarity. The use of minerals to make an e-reader is quite hefty, I won't lie, and the e-readers have to travel to stores just the same as books do. But for a person who reads, say, 100 books a year... that's an assortment of trees not being cut down for the printing of your book. That's 100 books electronically delivered to one e-reader that was made one time through the creation noted above. For a person who only reads occasionally, well, the e-reader probably has a more costly effect. Why use 33 pounds of minerals and 79 gallons of water for a device that will sit idly until you decide to read once or twice a year? For those readers a printed copy might be the lesser of two evils.
The e-readers, when given up for newer, fancier version of the device, could lead to more waste. This is a large problem with so many electronic devices taking up space in garbage dumps through out the world. But there are steps to eliminate this additional waste.
"A UK-based start-up WEEE Systems has ambitious plans to tackle the growing issue of e-waste. They recently revealed that they are in the process of developing a prototype plant capable of providing closed-loop recycling services to leading electronics manufacturers." - Akhila Vijayaraghavan "WEEE Systems Works Towards a Closed-Loop E-Waste Recycling System"
There are an assortment of stores in the US that offer free recycling for electronics (e-readers included!) so that they may be disposed of appropriately. So not all is lost. Even if e-readers are tossed aside in favor of something else, they can still be taken care of appropriately just as a books pages being recycled.
While I used to work in various bookstores (and things could have changed since I left, but this is an observation developed from circa 2008-2010) newspapers and magazines that had expired would have the covers ripped from them and thrown away. Often times books that were unneeded would be tossed in a trash bin. They were left as useless items collecting dust. I feel that overall we need to start respecting the environment more and handle the making and disposal of e-readers and books in a different way.
Both items have different impacts to the environment. It literally is a decision of the lesser evil if you are looking at this with an environmental mindset. But I feel it all depends on how often you read and how your reading device (whether it be electronic or a printed copy) is handled. Both creations are here and likely to stay, what we can do now is take the necessary steps to ensure that they have the smallest impact on the environment.
Interested in more e-book ranting/loving?
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