The future will have both eReaders and paper publications. Rather than comparing one with the other for the best environmental credentials, it would be better to aim at improving the environmental performance of each.26 July 2012, 6.37am AEST
ceiling filled with weighty tomes, or one book-sized device holding hundreds of
books in electronic form: which one of these options for the voracious reader
creates the least damaging environmental footprint?
There is no easy answer to the
question, dependent as it is on personal environmental values and a readers
reading habits. eReaders tend to be popular not only amongst voracious readers
but also amongst occasional readers, who might previously have only owned a
handful of books, complicating the question further.
Regardless, more can be done to
improve the environmental performance of both eReaders and paper publications.
The environmental consequences of
pulp and paper manufacturing are well documented, even though the worst
excesses are now corrected. But at least once the paper is made and the book
published, there are no significant further negative impacts and the carbon is
are higher environmental costs involved in manufacturing an eReader unit
compared to a unit of paper, and there are on-going operational effects.
However, one eReader can hold any number of eBooks, newspapers and magazines
which means that eReader users purchase fewer printed publications.
Trying to environmentally promote
or denigrate depending on your point of view one form of reading over
another is inevitably controversial, and perhaps futile. It is not just about
numbers, such as tonnes of CO?, raw materials and waste, but also about
human behaviour and interpretation of the impacts.
For example, is the logging of
(mostly plantation) trees of greater environmental significance than the
extraction of limited resources of rare earth metals? Is it more important to
consider the greenhouse effect of CO? emissions rather than
the health effects of air and water quality? These are just a few of the many
environmental issues involved.
Much of the discussion about
eReaders versus paper books has taken place with the best of intentions and
indeed makes the most of available information. But the fact remains that reliable
information at the required scale (both micro and macro) is not available, and
probably never will be because of the cost of acquiring that information in
light of how quickly it becomes redundant.
The few areas where commentators
are in agreement are that:
will continue to increase their share of human reading needs regardless of
environmental considerations few people will make purchases based on
based reading will continue to meet a significant proportion of reading needs;
more eBooks read on a single eReader, the greater the potential offset vs paper
books. Depending on who you believe and what is being
compared, that might be 20-100 paper books for equivalent CO2 emissions, or
40-70 paper books taking into account other impacts like fuel, water, minerals
and human health. But that does not mean either has an impact that is good
both can improve; and
lowest long term environmental impact remains sharing paper books, buying
second hand books and borrowing books from a library (provided you catch public
transport there). While a feel good option, this is an unlikely game changer.
the eReader and paper books (both including newspapers and magazines) have
their environmental pluses and minuses. These cover the cradle to grave
elements: sourcing and extraction of raw material sources; processing materials
and manufacturing products (including byproducts and disposal); distribution
and retailing; end user uses (including maintenance and replacement); disposal;
and transport at all stages.
Each of these elements has within
it considerations of sustainability, energy consumption (source of fuel and
production of emissions), health and environmental hazards, air and water
pollution, and waste disposal.
Then there are further individual
human behaviour variables such as how the eReader or paper book is used,
frequency of use, frequency of replacement (including planned obsolescence) and
recycling/solid waste disposal.
For example, any environmental
benefits arising from using an eReader and not buying paper books are likely to
vanish if, like many of us, people give in to the temptation to update their
reading device every year or two long before it stops working.
A full Life Cycle Analysis of
books versus eReaders might be desirable but is difficult and potentially
misleading. These analyses rely on averages or a range of performance inputs
and outputs. For the consumer it is difficult to evaluate all the issues let
alone compare the different approaches to reading.
future will have both eReaders and paper publications. Rather than comparing
one with the other for the best environmental credentials, it would be better
to aim at improving the environmental performance of each.
We should require manufacturers
to strive for the smallest possible footprint in a sustainable cradle-to-grave
operating environment. If manufacturers transparently demonstrate they are
meeting this objective, then consumers have the option to prefer their
products. Responsible environmental behaviour by consumers is a further
critical element in maintaining a sustainable reading environment.
Nonetheless, sharing a book
appears to be the best way to ensure you minimise the impact of your reading
This article was written with
the assistance of Dr Bruce Allender, Microscopist & Environmental
Specialist at Covey Consulting.