Friday, 5 September 2014

Are eBooks better for the environment than physical books?

I recently read a post showing a cartoon about eBooks and physical books.  One comment was that eBooks are better for the environment than physical books. That was my first instinct too. However, as I thought about it, and dug a bit deeper, it’s a bit more complicated than I first thought.

The last figures I saw, were that manufacturing a kindle, and assuming 4 years of use, consumes about 168kg of CO2. That's equivalent to producing roughly 23 books.  So if you read more than 6 books a year an eBook reader should be more environmentally friendly- as long as you hold onto your eBook reader for 4 years without buying a new one.That’s based on manufacture; there’s the distribution consideration as well- given that most books are published in China and exported.

However, it’s still not as simple as that. The lithium battery in an eBook reader, such as a kindle, is a pollutant and the environmental costs of dealing with that are high (even with recycling). Also, physical books tend to last longer than 4 years.  They’re often reused, passed on, even recycled (hard to recycle an eBook). 

Then's there's the trees. Having trees growing tends to be better for the environment than not having the trees at all. However, if trees aren't being grown for paper production are the trees left to happily get on with producing O2/managing CO2? Increasing not: the land is turned over for building on or for food manufacture.

There’s also a social perspective. Currently, more people earn their livelihood through the end to end physical book process compared to eBooks (especially if people use existing multifunctional devices rather than getting specialist eBook readers, or frequent replacement of gadgets, something I’m guilty of). In theory, removing the costs of paying others, should mean that eBooks are cheaper for consumers than physical books;  leaving us to spend more money on other consumables (and a nice increase in revenue and profits for Amazon, given that most eBooks are Kindle).

However, price and convenience drives buying decisions towards eBooks.  So, for those who want to consider the environment and want price and convenience the optimal choice is probably to use a multifunctional device, rather than buying an additional eBook reader (e.g. using a tablet- assuming you have one or you want to do more than read eBooks)- and use eBook reader apps (Kindle, Kobo, Nook…). And also not replacing the device too often (4 years sounds a bit of a stretch target! Especially for tablets- though I'm finding that iPads tend to have a longer replacement cycle than some of the android tablets- if only because upgrades come around faster).

And as a further point- are physical books more effective for information distribution or enjoyment compared to eBooks?  A recent study found:

... readers using a Kindle were "significantly" worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story is part of major new Europe-wide research looking at the impact of digitisation on the reading experience.

Personally, I use a mix of  eBooks and physical books; ebook readers and tablets; Kindle, Kobo and Nook eBooks apps. I prefer reading a physical book. But it's not always as convenient as an eBook reader. I prefer reading on eBook readers (usually) compared to tablets/phones, but again eBook readers aren't always as convenient as a phone/phablet.

The original post has made me think a bit more about the impact of my decisions as well as the assumptions I make!

 (Click here for the original post)

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