Watt, Why & How e-Newsletter

E-Readers vs Traditional Books: Which is Greener?

The popularity of digital books is increasing; EcoLibris predicts they will represent 60 percent of the total book market by 2020. Though e-readers are touted as being more environmentally friendly because no trees are cut down, there are other problems with this technology. To make a true comparison with traditional books, you must consider the total carbon footprint.


EcoLibris estimates 80 percent of a paperback book’s carbon footprint is produced during the earliest stages of production, which includes paper harvesting, forest clearing and material shipping. Throughout their entire life, however, printed books only produce about 9 pounds of carbon emissions, says the Green Press Initiative.

The Initiative estimates the carbon emissions for producing an iPad 2 and Kindle are much higher, at 231 pounds and 370 pounds, respectively. This means you would have to read between 26 and 42 books on an e-reader before the device is better for the environment than a printed book. To put it another way, one year of reading e-books accounts for a carbon footprint five times greater than a year’s worth of print books, assuming you read about seven books a year.

It may take longer than a year if a tablet computer is used instead of a dedicated e-reader. According to some market experts, tablet computers are becoming more popular because they offer features that are not available on e-readers. The more features a device has, the more energy it consumes and the larger its carbon footprint.

On the other hand, an e-reader consumes little power during use, about 7 watts at maximum brightness. Most people would require at least a 40-watt light bulb in order to read the pages of a book. The e-reader consumes only 20 percent of the electricity compared to reading a paper book. That saves about 34 pounds of carbon emissions per year.

Electronic waste or e-waste is another major problem with e-readers or tablets. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), electronic waste is growing two to three times faster than any other waste stream, including paper. E-waste represents about 70 percent of all toxic waste in the U.S; e-readers and tablets typically contain toxic materials like arsenic, lead and mercury (a component in LED screens). Approximately one fourth of all electronics are recycled.

Because most people replace their readers within two years and the discarded ones usually end up as electronic waste, a person would need to read at least 80 books on their device to make up for the impact on the environment. The carbon footprint increases every time you get a new device. With 10 million e-readers expected to be in use within the next few years, users would have to replace 25 million printed books with digital copies. Therefore, an e-reader, or tablet, is only greener if fewer printed books are produced and enough digital books are read. The majority of the world still relies on printed books.

Go back to the library

The Sierra Club believes the most sustainable way to read is to use the public library. Library books are read by dozens of people over their lifetime, and they can be recycled when they are no longer usable. Another option is the Paperback Book Swap, an online site where you list books you no longer want, mail them to those who want them, and in return receive books you want to read for free. If you must have an e-reader, use it until it no longer works and then recycle it responsibly.

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