Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Environmentally Conscious E-reading

As with the pricing of ebooks, the environmental impact of ebooks and ereading is a lot more complicated than it first appeared. Like many others, I first thought of all those trees that wouldn’t be cut down and all that gas that wouldn’t be used shipping books from publisher to store (and sometimes back again). But as Ted Genoways, in his illuminating essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review argued, there’s a lot more going on environmentally with digital reading devices than just saving trees. Genoways is worth quoting at length:

But the New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader—factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuels along the manufacturing process—is roughly the same as fifty books. At first that sounds encouraging; after all, even the smallest personal library contains fifty volumes. But the real problems come in lifespan. At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books—not used or rare editions, 250 million new books—each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.”

Here is the full quote from the New York Times article he mentions:

So, how many volumes do you need to read on your e-reader to break even?
With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.”

Does this mean we should abandon ereading in order to protect the environment? No, it just means, that, like everything else, if we want to diminish our negative impact on the environment, we need to be conscientious. So if you want to read ebooks, here are some strategies to improve your impact on the environment.

If You’ve Got an Ereader Use it Until It Breaks: Perhaps the biggest source of impact of electronic devices is that we constantly replace them, no matter what condition the old device is in. The numbers quoted above suggest you replace (not just read) at least 100 books with ebooks if you want to be certain to just break even, in terms of negative environmental impact, but really, in terms of global warming we probably want to try for a little more than breaking even. How long that takes depends on how many books you buy, but I imagine for most people, the new device will be out long before they’ve reached the 100 books mark. So don’t buy a new device until your old one breaks. If your old device breaks every year or two, stop buying from that company.

Buy a Used Device: Last year’s model will still read this year’s books and old readers are probably pretty cheap. They might not have all the features of the newest model, but they’ll get the job done.

Buy One Multifunctional Device: With various apps, including Google Ebooks, any tablet can also be an ereader. Furthermore, the new tablet PCs or “convertible tablets” or “netvertibles” can be your computer, iPad, and Nook, all in one device. The fewer devices you buy, the less of a negative environmental you impact you’ll have. And in that vein...

Read Ebooks on a Device You Already Have: If you’ve got an iPad or other tablet, just get the Google Ebooks app, or some other ereader app and away you go. Google ebooks can also be read on any computer, so if you’re already carrying around a laptop or spending a lot of time on your desktop you might as well read ebooks on the computers you have. You could also download Adobe Digital Editions, an ereading software that works with tons of different ebooks providers, including the Google ebooks sold at Porter Square Books.


As with pretty much everything else in our global economy, the ecological impact of ereading isn’t simple. But if you are conscientious about the device you buy and how you use it, ebooks can be an eco-friendly way to read books and support your locally owned independent bookstore.

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