e-Books and the Environment

Recently, someone I know rather well challenged me to a verbal (and intellectual) duel about the merits of e-books over paper books. My opponent is a vocal supporter of e-readers and electronic books (as well as technology in general), and can’t understand why I am stuck, as they put it, in paper-ville.

‘Well,’ I said, as if it was an obvious point. ‘One reason I love paper books so much is because of the environment.’

This almost caused a meltdown.

Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Compfight cc

I was accused of being an imbecile who didn’t understand the first thing about the environment. ‘What about all the trees cut down to provide pulp for the paper that goes into your beloved books?’ I was asked. ‘You can’t tell me you believe that’s environmentally friendly!’ Now, I am an avid recycler, and have been for over twenty years. I love washing and squashing my plastics, sorting my old newspapers, making sure every tiny bit of recyclable material is separated from the non-recyclable bits, and put back out to use. I am one of these earnest hand-wringing types who worries about the state of the polar ice-caps and rising sea levels and global warming (and who has firm opinions on the latter, but I won’t go into them here for fear of generating another typhoon of derision), and so to think I don’t care, or don’t know, about the environment is a bit galling.

The other party in the e-book discussion is a person who lives and breathes technology and computers and – this is important – younger than me. Not by a lot, chronologically, but enough for us to belong, just about, to two different ‘groups’; digital migrants (me) and digital natives (them). Perhaps my interlocutor believes computers, and by extension e-readers, come out of the ground fully formed, wrapped neatly in plastic, with a friendly-looking user interface which says: ‘Me? I couldn’t possibly harm the environment! Come on, now. Not a single tree died to make me!’ For this person, ‘dead-tree’ technology is almost offensive in its backwardness, like expecting us to live in caves huddled around campfires instead of in houses, huddled around the TV. I completely understand why they, and so many others, think like this – but I couldn’t agree with them less.

What irritates me (can you tell I’m irritated?) is that there is such naivety when it comes to the reality behind producing e-readers. Sure, you can store hundreds of books on one device. Sure, you can use it for a good long while before it becomes ‘obsolete’ – or unfashionable, or broken. It all sounds good, that’s true. But in every single device, there are heavy metals, toxic chemicals, non-biodegradable circuitry and metal and plastic and glass and goodness knows what else – and these things not only do harm when the device is thrown away, but also when they are being mined, or manufactured, in the first place. They do harm not only to the environment, but to the people who work in the mines and factories from which we get our neatly-packaged, clean-looking, ever so modern pieces of sleek reading equipment. It’s too easy to convince ourselves when we open up our brand-new machine that no harm was done to anything or anyone else in order for us to buy it, but I just can’t believe that’s actually the truth.

In the EU, most if not all paper books are produced using wood pulp from managed forests. Sure, I will accept that printing causes environmental damage – water run-off, the dye used in ink, diesel used by log-cutting machinery and so on – but trees are an infinitely renewable resource, and it is far easier to control and monitor the damage done from pulping and printing than it is to control the damage done by mining and working with heavy metals. When a paper book has reached the end of its usable life, it can be recycled with ease – turned back into paper pulp which can be used for all manner of things. Books are so easy to recycle that you can do it at home, through your municipal waste collection. Not many people recycle their old e-readers, and even if they did, it’s no easy task to reclaim the useful components from each device. It’s a lot more wasteful of time, energy and resources to manufacture, use and finally recycle the average e-reader compared with the average book. I don’t have statistics to hand but I will defend this viewpoint to the cold, bitter end, dagnabbit.

So. Phew. That’s me. I feel very passionate about this topic (no! Really?) but if anyone wishes to chime in with refutation, information, argument or interested debate I’d really welcome it. I’d love to get others’ opinions on this issue, and to gauge if I’m totally off the wall with this. I promise to remain reasonable, polite and respectful (Girl Scouts’ honour), and if anyone out there has any actual, verifiable data about the environmental impact of e-reader production, I’d be charmed to make its acquaintance.

(And if the environmental argument can’t sway you to the paper book cause, maybe this article about how reading them is better for you will do the trick. If not? Well, I did my best. Adios!)


3 thoughts on “e-Books and the Environment

  1. Mark A. King

    Hi there,
    I too am passionate about this and I’ll declare early on that I love IT and have worked for one of the top Corporate Responsibility teams in the UK. So, hopefully, you’ll get a balanced argument.
    You have made some very important points, but they are very one sided.
    Other negative factors in physical books are that you’ve not factored in the transportation or storage of the books. One small eReader will not weigh much in comparison to the hundreds of books it can store. Likewise, it will take up infinitely less space in highly damaging stores/ supermarkets and less damaging warehouses. These all contribute to CO2 footprints.
    On the other hand, new devices do cause impact that is often ignored (health and social as well as environmental, see link).
    There is an excellent (but short) balanced argument here http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jan/06/should-i-buy-an-e-reader

    Another factor here is reuse. If you borrow books or use an ereading app on a device you already own (eg phone) then this is the lowest impact choice you can make.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Excellent points, Mark, and thanks for the link. I really appreciate you taking the time to set things out clearly for me. I’m still a real-book enthusiast, but I’ll try to be more balanced in my views in future. 🙂 Thank you!

  2. Jan Hawke

    Interesting debate but for me it’s all about the wallet and aesthetics. I was always very much in the ‘real’ paperback camp, but with a real downer on hardbacks unless they were ‘investment’ buys (although I still love the secondhand hardback market). This was until I went ‘pro’ with my writing and decided part of that package also ought to embrace practical reviewing on Amazon – which means you need to purchase as well as read books, to make more of a mark for yourself. But therein’s the rub as there’s an awful lot of frog writers out there that want kissing with no hope of prince(ss)dom in store…
    I’ve got a tablet that supports Kindle which has more than paid for itself in terms of getting me to read authors I wouldn’t normally even look at and buy them in eBook format at a very bearable price for the ones that do need all the perseverance I can muster, without actually needing to avoid sharp objects and long drops. And I’ve also discovered some really good authors that I would happily pay ‘real’ book prices for in the future. For me it’s a personal decision – for books by authors I actively want to read and already collect, then it’s bound paper all the way and for bread and butter reading as part of my ‘job’, cheap (or even free) eBooks are a no-brainer and save a hell of a lot of shelf space for books that I really will appreciate and read over and over.


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