Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The greenest book: paper or electronic?

I’ve been pondering this topic quite a bit and found several online articles (listed at end) plus insightful reader comments that helped me to make this list. Without getting into heavy number-crunching to calculate carbon footprints, here are some pros and cons of traditional paper books vs. electronic books. Some of the items aren’t necessarily energy-related, but impact the reader’s experience and thus the desirability of one form over the other.

Paper book pros:

Trees are a renewable resource.

Paper books require little energy to read (aside from a lamp and some cookies, perhaps.)

Browsing is easy.

Paper books...

can last for decades or centuries

are often lent to many readers (via libraries as well as informal passing around.)

are generally not thrown away but are donated or sold.

are a carbon sink.

are pleasant to read in bed, in the bath, on the beach, or atop Mt. Everest.


Paper books...

are heavy to ship.

become dated very quickly and can’t be directly updated.

are an all or nothing proposition. You either buy the whole book or none of it.

can be made from recycled materials and printed with non-toxic ink but often (usually?) are not.

Paper manufacturing requires a great deal of water and energy.

Pulp trees are often grown in an unsustainable way.

Many (most?) books are printed overseas and shipped long distances.

Because book returns are allowed, many books are shipped twice... to a bookstore, then back to the warehouse.

Excess books that are returned may ultimately never be sold and instead get recycled or destroyed.

Bookstores, libraries, and warehouses must be heated, cooled, and otherwise use energy.

Now for electronic books... first, a definition. For my purposes, a book in digital form can be a PDF that is downloaded from the Internet, a book published on a web site, read via a Kindle or other portable device format, on a CD, or hidden inside stuffed animals, etcetera.

E-book pros:
take almost zero physical storage space... say “bye-bye” to bookshelves loaded with books nobody reads!
can be very inexpensive or free (depending on the economic model.)
can be easily subdivided so readers could buy only the portion they really want.
can easily be revised and updated.
Text and images that have been turned into electrons require little energy to “ship.”

Hundreds of books can be stored in one easy-to-carry package.

Various enhancements such as dictionary access, easy searching for terms, sound, animation, and who knows what else already are (or soon will be) possible.

Creative possibilities such as multiple endings, non-linear reading, internal and external linking, reader collaboration, and other multimedia mash-ups are possible.

Narrow interest publications are more economically feasible.

E-book cons:

They can’t be read without electricity.

Reader devices (e.g. computer, Kindle) take energy to manufacture and ship, and often contain toxic or nonrenewable materials.

Device life spans are relatively short.

Current devices are expensive.

Some technologies allow the seller to delete the book from a purchaser’s device (yikes!)

Readers can’t share a book under copyright (legally, anyway) except by lending their device.

Many titles are not currently available in electronic form.

Many people just don’t like reading on a screen.

Browsing e-books is a clunky experience compared to swiftly flipping through books in a bookstore.

I haven’t reached many firm conclusions, but one thing is for sure; it’s highly desirable that both paper and e-books be as green as possible, period. The trend is for “we the people” to be more demanding about how the products we consume rate in terms of their sustainability. As authors and readers, these issues are a top priority for us to think about now and in the years to come.

Innovation and the Future of E-books by John W. Warren (downloadable PDF)
The New York Times: Are E-Readers Greener Than Books? by Joe Hutsko
Cleantech Group Report: E-readers a win for carbon emissions (summary)
The New York Times: Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle by Brad Stone


Unknown said...

What a thought-provoking post! It's a whole paradigm shift to examine how the way information gets disseminated can impact the environment. I'm still trying to figure out how to make a living when the business model of copies sold is under attack from so many fronts.

Linda Zajac said...

There is also a lot of paper coming into publishing houses via the mail system.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for this interesting post. I do have one quibble, though--as a pro point for electronitic books, you say they "take almost zero physical storage space." However, I try hard to believe that if you have floor to ceiling bookshelves, especially on your north facing walls, the books will act as extra insulation, cutting down on your heating bills.

Also, I think that the less air you have to heat in your home, the less energy you use. Large stacks of books in the middle of rooms, on every available surface, filling the closets, fill this empty space nicely.

Unknown said...

Excellent points!

I assume that the paper being mailed to publishers is the proverbial slush pile?

And paper books as insulation and heat sinks... we can consider those as additional points in their favor.

Unknown said...

Hi Vicki,

The issue of how best to be green is one that concerns me greatly, as well as the changing economic model of publishing. I’ve been trying to read the writing on the wall, but it keeps getting graffitied over!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

The way books are produced, sold, and read is changing, whether we like it or not. I say, embrace the new medium and make it ours. I can imagine all sorts of stuff we as authors can do with an ebook that we can't do with a paper book.

As for green, I would say that not using paper gives the edge to e-books, hands down.

June said...

Also consider that digital content is stored on servers... big computers that require constant energy to keep them running, updating and accessable. So a digital book sn't only using the energy you use when you read it, but when it is uploaded, downloaded, read, and all the time it is stored. I recall reading somewhere that google search engines use the same amount of energy that could power a small town ....that is a lot of energy consumption that we just don't consider when we use a search engine.