Paper book or e-reader: Which is better for the world?

Paper book or e-reader: Which is better for the world?

Paper book or e-reader: Which is better for the world?

By 2030, individuals who enjoy reading paper books, e-books, and audiobooks are projected to invest approximately $174 billion (€163 billion) in their beloved literature. With an overwhelming number of around 4 million new paper book titles being published annually, readers are truly spoiled for choice.

However, it is crucial to consider the environmental and climate implications of our reading habits. Is it time for us to transition from paper books to e-readers to protect our forests and combat global warming?

Each format, whether it be paper books or e-readers, has its advantages and disadvantages.

Pros and Cons of Paper Books

Paper book or e-reader: Which is better for the world?

Ever since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany almost 600 years ago, the production of books has skyrocketed worldwide. According to a study by Google, approximately 130 million hard copy titles were published between 1440 and 2010.

This abundance of knowledge and storytelling has undoubtedly been a great benefit to humanity. However, it has also come at a cost to the environment. The production of these books has required a significant number of trees, which are crucial for supporting wildlife, producing clean air, and storing carbon to mitigate climate change.

Penguin Random House UK, a prominent publishing company that releases around 15,000 paper book titles annually, has recognized the need for sustainability. They now use sustainable paper to create their books. Courtney Ward-Hunting, the senior manager for sustainability production at the publishing company, affirms that all the paper utilized in their books carries certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC claims to manage sustainable timber harvests that protect forests for future generations. However, the FSC’s forest protection efforts have faced criticism from environmental groups like Greenpeace, accusing them of greenwashing.

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Paper book or e-reader: Which is better for the world?

Ward-Hunting acknowledges that more than 70% of the climate impact at Penguin Random House comes from printers and paper mills. She reveals that an average Penguin book generates approximately 330 grams of carbon dioxideDiscover the eco-choice: Paper or e-reader? Uncover which is better for the world. Make informed decisions for a sustainable future! equivalent, which includes all greenhouse gases. To put it into perspective, this is about the same as the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee. This calculation takes into account the entire life cycle of book production, including machine efficiency, renewable energy usage, ink types, and transportation from the printer to warehouses and customers.

In comparison, an average paperback book has about three times the climate impact, equivalent to approximately 1 kilogram of CO2. This is similar to charging 122 smart phones or making two café lattes.

According to book data analysts, Words Rated, the carbon footprint of hard copy books has been reduced due to innovations in paper manufacture. However, the overall climate impact remains substantial when considering the approximately 2.2 billion physical books sold worldwide each year.

Penguin Random House indicates that assuming each book produces 0.33 kilograms of CO2 equivalent, the collective emissions amount to a substantial 726,000 tons of CO2. To put this into perspective, it is equivalent to providing electricity to 141,261 homes annually or the emissions produced by 161,500 cars.

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E-readers: Pros and cons

Paper book or e-reader: Which is better for the world?

One positive aspect of e-readers is their environmental impact, as they eliminate the need for paper by storing numerous books electronically.

This not only preserves forests but also reduces the energy-intensive process of wood pulping for paper manufacturing, as the US cuts down approximately 32 million trees each year for book production. In 2017, the IEA reported that pulping accounted for about 6% of global industrial energy consumption.

Additionally, new book releases in digital format eliminate the necessity for shipping, as users can instantly download them onto an e-reader device.

Amazon’s Kindle is the dominant player in the e-reader market, selling over 487 million e-books annually, as reported by Words Rated. Additionally, Amazon stated that approximately 5 million individuals worldwide read on Kindle devices or through the Kindle app each month. Younger Millennial and Gen Z readers primarily drive the surge in popularity of e-books. Statista projects that the number of global e-book users will reach 1.1 billion by 2027.

However, the transition from paper to digital books raises questions about the environmental and climate benefits. Digital devices have downsides associated with them despite offering convenience in e-books. The production of e-readers is a resource-intensive process, requiring significant amounts of water and energy. Moreover, the extraction of rare metals and minerals like copper, lithium, and cobalt for the device’s battery has environmental implications. Additionally, manufacturers predominantly make e-readers from plastic derived from fossil fuels.

The production phase of e-readers, similar to physical books, has the most significant climate impact. However, the environmental impact of e-readers extends beyond production. These devices consume electricity throughout their lifespan, requiring frequent charging. Furthermore, e-readers rely on data center infrastructure for storing and transmitting e-book files.

In contrast, paper books do not necessitate an internet connection or charging. Decades may pass, and multiple individuals can share them. On average, an e-reader lasts for three to five years. Disposing of or recycling paper books is relatively straightforward, whereas e-readers pose more challenges. Nevertheless, some companies, including Amazon, have implemented recycling programs to address e-waste concerns.

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What option is more environmentally friendly?

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The popularity of traditional paper books surpasses that of e-books, with double the market penetration in the US in 2021. However, the environmental impact of each option is a complex matter, according to Eri Amasawa, an associate professor in engineering at the University of Tokyo.

In a study published in 2017, the researcher compared the greenhouse gas emissions associated with reading physical books and e-readers. The findings revealed that using an e-reader to read 15 or more books (or 25 on an iPad) over its 3-year lifespan makes it more environmentally friendly.

Reading one or two Kindle books annually won’t significantly reduce emissions. Greater consumption is needed for notable environmental impact.

But what about individuals who consume literature on both platforms?

“Many people still prefer reading paper books, even if they also read some e-books,” Amasawa stated. This category accounts for approximately 33% of readers in the US.

Amasawa advises book enthusiasts to buy physical books intentionally, even if e-readers are more environmentally friendly for avid readers. And once you’re done with them, make sure to recycle them.”

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