Bewildering green

I recently came across a detailed and funky infographic on the economics of ereaders. It was full of interesting statistics from around 2010-2011 on the number of books (print and electronic) sold in the US (57 per second), the market share of Kindles (47%) versus iPads (32%), and so on. But one glaring statement undermined the validity of everything that surrounded it. I’ve seen many writers grapple with the difference in environmental impact of print versus electronic books, but too often such discussions boil down to overly simplistic reasoning and bland questions such as which format is ‘greener’. Our friendly infographic though made what I think is the worst environmental case yet for ebooks:

‘In terms of carbon emissions, 22 books on an ereader is equal to one paper book…The more e-books being downloaded on a single e-reader that holds hundreds of books, the more the environment will benefit.’


Huh? For starters, this assumes that every print book read will be purchased brand new, not borrowed or bought second hand (as the graphic itself acknowledges), but it also disregards the many complexities of this discussion in its pursuit of a motherhood statement.

Many surveys have reported that people who buy ereaders, read more on the screens than they did on paper. Simply put, this means that every ebook purchased does not equal one paper book unsold.

Yes, it takes a bunch of carbon and some trees to make paper books and ship them all over the world, but once a book is made, its environmental impact is over with. If you really don’t like a book, there’s nothing to stop you composting it. Ereaders also use a bunch of carbon in their manufacture (the equivalent of 22 books we’re told), but they also require ongoing energy to run and are made from materials such as plastic and heavy metals that continue to have environmental impact long after you’re finished with it.

On that note, ereaders are also becoming locked into the technology upgrade cycle. We’re not just expected to buy an ereader and fill it with books, we’re also expected to replace it regularly (manufacturers are currently assuming a two-year cycle). After two years of use, that ereader is designed to be just another piece of our growing technology waste problem.

Now, the last thing I want to do is make you paranoid about the environmental impact of your reading (no, seriously), but rather I want to point out the bewildering complexity. Questions lead to more questions and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to which format is ‘greener’. The answer will change depending on how much you read, how you buy your books, what kind of technology you use and how frequently you upgrade it, and even how often you plug it into a wall socket. No two readers are alike and the question of which format is greener depends on too many variables.

It’s not an issue that can be answered by a single sentence in an infographic. Even a funky one.

The original graphic is at