Earth Day: Books vs. eReaders

3 Apr

Read Green 6.

A few years ago I was given a Kindle as a gift. At first, I was reluctant to use it. Then I realized I could borrow eBooks from the library and download them instantly. The appeal of reading a real book could not compete with free instant gratification. I became an eBook addict. Not long after this discovery, in what critics are calling “one of my dumber moves,” I broke my Kindle. After throwing a hissy fit and sulking for a few days, I got a new one. I justified it because I knew I would use it, and I figured eReaders were better for the environment. After all, they didn’t use paper, and they didn’t require shipping or a trip to the library or book store. Plus, I used it a lot, and I loved that I could continue to hoard books without the added clutter or having to haul them around every time I moved. So when April and I decided to do a literary themed Earth Day celebration I decided to dig into the book vs. eBook issue.

Book v eReader

As it turns out, in most circumstances, books are better for the environment.

Books do have a few environmental downsides: Paper production has a high carbon and water footprint. Ink produces some serious human health and environmental impacts. They are surprisingly hard to recycle, and many end up in landfills.

By comparison eReaders have a few more downsides:

The biggest problems with eReaders are also true for most electronics. They use a lot of toxic and non-renewable resources in their production. Some of the materials can be salvaged and toxic materials kept out of landfills through electronic recycling, but the vast majority of our electronics wind up in landfills. They also have a much higher water and carbon footprint in their production. Because they require battery power to be used they have an additional carbon foot print over their lifetime. Furthermore there’s the additional invisible footprint of all those cloud servers running 24/7 so we can download The Night Circus at three in the morning if we want to.

The question most researchers on this topic can’t seem to agree on is at what volume of reading do the disadvantages of one outweigh the disadvantages of the other? As it turns out, there are a lot of factors to be considered when we calculate the green economy of reading. Are we buying all of our books new? How are they being transported? What model of eReader are we talking about?

In 2009 The New York Times reported that Kindle users need to read 22.5 books to offset the impacts of their Kindle. The next year another article upped the estimate to 40-50. It’s worth noting though that both articles were published before eReader sales peaked, and before tablet readers that require more energy were introduced to the market. This article took into account the frequency with which eReaders were replaced and estimated that the eBook industry as a whole needed to displace the sale of 250 million new books to break even environmentally. Another article estimates that the iPad only breaks even with books after five years of average use. A publication by the Green Press Initiative puts the beneficial number for eBooks somewhere between 70-90 books for the lifetime of the eReader. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that American adults had read an average of 5 books over the last year. Even if we use the lowest estimate of books needed to offset the impact of the kindle, the average reader would need to own their device for over four years before it pays off for the environment. Clearly the Kindle is not for everyone.


However, Pew has done a number of other studies looking at reading habits. One surprising study found that library users still purchase a number of their books. Both print and eReader users generally prefer to purchase books over borrowing them, but eReader users have a slightly higher preference for buying their own copies of books. Another study found that eBook readers tend to be more avid readers of books in all formats, and that they read more after purchasing an eReader. By my own interpretation, this suggests that if we can get eReader users to replace their devices less often and dispose of them properly, that they may have great potential to be greener for high volume readers.

It’s worth noting that eBooks sales have yet to surpass printed books, and that both numbers are still rising as population grows. A more recent article shows sales of dedicated e-readers falling as more readers use multi-purpose tablets or smartphones. While some have suggested this could mark the beginning of the end for dedicated e-readers, I personally think it unlikely. It does however, further complicate the process of calculating the comparative footprint of eReaders if they are being used for multiple purposes.


Unless you read a lot, the greenest way to read a book is probably to buy it used or borrow it from the library. Bonus points if you walk or bike to pick it up.

However, if like me, you have a hard time kicking the Kindle habit, there are a few things you can do to lessen your environmental impact:

Rather than buying the latest and greatest eReader, consider getting a used one. (Personally I like Glyde.) Try to get the maximum use out of your device before going for an upgrade. When it’s time to get rid of it, I can’t overemphasize the importance of sending all of your electronics, Kindles included, to electronic recycling facilities. Most Best Buy stores have electronic recycling, or check out the EPA website for more locations.

Also, don’t be an idiot and leave it on the floor next to your bed where you might step on it in the morning like I did.



2 Responses to “Earth Day: Books vs. eReaders”

  1. Mara April 10, 2015 at 11:59 am #

    Fascinating as I want to get something for this summer’s backpack, however, since I am supposed to post blog updates for the Bishop Marcus Award I think I will have to get an iPad or such as with a Kindle I can only read…

    • wanderdrossel April 10, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

      Wait, how are you planning to post blog updates from the backcountry with an iPad? Do they have Wifi in Yosemite Wilderness now?

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