Are eReaders Really Green?

May 1, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 76 10 min read

In 2009, the Book Industry Environmental Council set a couple of environmental goals for the U.S. book industry. Using a calculation of the industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 as its baseline, the BIEC and its members pledged to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by 20% in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. When the pledge was made, the Kindle had existed for only a year and a half, and the Nook was still eight months away. (Kobo eReaders and iPads didn’t emerge until 2010.) eBooks, still in their infancy, accounted for a measly 5% of books sold in America.

Today, it seems like many publishing houses are on their ways toward achieving the BIEC goals. Thanks to the proliferation of FTP software, most major publishing houses have slashed the amount of printing done in-office. At John Wiley & Sons, my production group had a paperless workflow: Adobe was our editing tool of choice, and to be one of our freelancers, you had to pass an exhaustive MS Word screening test. Later on, at Oxford University Press, a common email signature asked readers to “save paper and print only what’s necessary.” Organizing stacks of paper on your desk was out; navigating sub-folders on a shared drive was in.

Meanwhile eBooks were becoming ever more popular. By the end of 2011, Amazon announced it was selling one million Kindles a week, and Apple said it had sold over 40 million iPads. Consequently, eBooks accounted for 31% of U.S. book sales by 2012. According to a Pew Internet study, as many as one in four American adults now own an eReader or tablet (one in three if they went to college). The trend toward digitization is undeniable, and there are many reasons to be optimistic: big publishers are making more money off of more products than ever before; it’s easier than ever to publish a book; and the number of books available to anyone with an internet connection is unprecedented. Some analysts even predict that soon print books, like CDs a few years ago, will be almost entirely replaced by digital files.

But is all of this really cutting the industry’s carbon footprint? Is total eBook adoption — that is: elimination of the print book — really an ecologically responsible goal?

Put in absolute terms, the number of books — regardless of format — produced and sold across the globe increases each year. This is mostly due to an increasing global population. While America, Australia, India and the UK are the most rapid adopters of digital reading devices — at least for the time being — eBooks presently account for only a small fraction of the world book market. (This is due to factors such as availability of technology, reliable internet connections, and disposable income.)

Necessarily, the increased consumption of print and digital books has led to an ever-increasing demand for the materials required to create, transport, and store them. In the case of eBooks, though, vast amounts of materials are also necessary for the eReaders themselves, and this is something typically overlooked by proponents of digitization: the material costs are either ignored, or, more misleadingly, they’re classified as the byproduct of the tech industry instead of the book industry.

National Geographic correspondent Allen Tellis recently posted a brief note of encouragement to owners of eReaders, and it illustrates exactly the type of oversight I just mentioned. “The steady rise of eBooks,” Tellis wrote, “should benefit the environment by reducing use of paper and ink, and by slashing transportation, warehouse, and shelf-space limits.” He went on to note how certain study groups have determined “that the carbon released from eBooks is offset after people read more than 14 eBooks” on a single eReader. But Tellis ignores the fact that global print book consumption is rising concurrently with eBook consumption. In other words: the carbon footprint of the digital book industry is mostly growing in addition to, not to the detriment of, the growing carbon footprint of the print book industry.

I couldn’t locate the source of Tellis’ information about those 14 eBooks offsetting the ecological cost of their owner’s eReader. Instead, I found this New York Times op-ed which painted a starkly different picture: “the impact of one e-reader … equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books.” Still more damning, Ted Genoways’ excellent VQR article about the raw materials needed for the production of eReaders (and other gizmos), found that:

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.

Usage figures are an important element in the estimation of a book’s environmental impact. According to Apple, an iPad is responsible for 2.5 grams of CO2e per hour of use. A single print book, on the other hand, is responsible for “a net 8.85 pounds” (PDF) of carbon emissions over the course of its life (e.g. production, transportation, and retail). Note that the former figure, however, is open-ended; the latter figure is finite. If you ignore the environmental cost of an eReader, that means you would need to read the iBookstore version of War and Peace for 1,605.39 hours (~67 days) to damage the environment as badly as that paperback copy of Tolstoy’s tome on your bookshelf. That certainly sounds like a point for eBooks, but it’s a totally misleading evaluation.

For a demonstration of just how misleading that comparison is, I used basic arithmetic and some minimal Googling to calculate the carbon footprint of the average American reading an average number of average novels at an average speed both in print and on an iPad. (I picked iPads because Amazon doesn’t release Kindle data. I picked America because we’re the most voracious consumers of digital books.) Here’s what I found:

I. One Year of Reading:
First I calculated the average rate of consumption for the average reader. I found average reading speed, average book length, and average number of books consumed, and then I calculated the carbon emissions caused by one year of reading.

  1. The average adult reads 200-250 words per minute. (Source)
  2. The average novel is 64,500 words. (Source)
  3. That means the average adult spends 4.3 hours reading an average novel.
    [(64,500 words / 250 wpm) / 60 minutes]
  4. The average adult reads 6.5 books per year. (Source; PDF)
  5. The average adult spends 27.95 hours reading each year.
    [6.5 books * 4.3 hours]


Paperback Footprint: 26,087.59 grams of CO2e
[6.5 books * 8.85 pounds of emissions * 453.5 g. per lb.]
eBook Footprint: 69.875 grams of CO2e
[6.5 books * 4.3 hours * 2.5 g. of emissions per hr.]

This is the comparison eBook proponents typically cite. Unfortunately, it’s at best lousy mathematics and at worst a manipulative comparison.

II. One Year of Reading (Device Footprints Included):
Next I found the lifetime carbon emissions from one iPad and one iPad 2, and I plugged those into my one year of reading calculations.


iPad lifetime emissions: 130,000 grams of CO2e (Source; PDF)
iPad 2 lifetime emissions: 105,000 grams of CO2e (Source; PDF)

Paperback Footprint: 26,087.59 grams of CO2e
eBook Footprint (iPad): 130,069.875 grams of CO2e
eBook Footprint (iPad 2): 105,069.875 grams of CO2e

As you can plainly see, factoring in the carbon footprint of an eReader drastically changes the comparison. One year of reading eBooks accounts for a carbon footprint five times greater than a year’s worth of print books.

Fans of eReaders will of course refute this data by claiming that their devices level out with — and could even become “greener” than — print books on a long enough timeline. This claim is indeed theoretically true after five years, and I’ll show you how.

III. Five Years of Reading on One Device (Device Footprints Included):
I extrapolated the data to account for five years of use at the same rate of consumption as above. (And on the same device for all five years — more on that in a minute.)


Paperback Footprint: 130,437.95 grams of CO2e
eBook Footprint (iPad): 130,349.375 grams of CO2e
eBook Footprint (iPad 2): 105,349.375 grams of CO2e

I determined that it takes five years (32.5 books) of steady eBook consumption (on the same device) to match the ecological footprint of reading the same number of print books the old fashioned way. This number is smack in between Tellis’ (14 books) and The New York Times’ (50 books) calculations. However it, too, is misleading because it doesn’t correctly account for device replacement.

As Ted Genoways was saying, most eReaders are used for only two years before being discarded, replaced, lost or broken. More than 20% of all Kindles sit unused after Christmas. So, that in mind, let’s look at the numbers when we factor in average eReader use — and account for device replacement every two years.

IV. Five Years of Reading (Device Replacement Included):
Assuming a device is replaced every two years (years 0, 2, and 4), this is the most accurate depiction of how an eReader compares to a pile of print books.


That eReader, then, accounts for an initial carbon footprint 200-250% greater than your typical household library, and it increases every time you get a new eReader for Christmas, or every time the latest Apple Keynote lights a fire in your wallet.

Also, these figures simply calculate the impact one person’s consumption has on the environment. If you live in a household with multiple eReaders — say, one for your husband and one for your daughter, too — your family’s carbon emissions are more than 600-750% higher per year than they would be if you invested in a bunch of bookshelves or, better yet, a library card.

Things are trickier than they seem, too. The truth is that the dedicated eReader died almost as soon as it arrived, and it’s since been replaced by items even worse for the environment than its ancestors. What we presently refer to as eReaders are more like all-purpose tablets equipped with email clients, web browsers, games, movie players, and more. (Even one of the earliest generations of Kindles offered a prototype web browser — buried in subfolders within the device’s navigation system, though clearly a hint of what was coming.) As these devices become more sophisticated, they invite more prolonged usage, so those 2.5 g of emissions per hour of use continue to add up. Likewise, as these devices become more sophisticated, their manufacture demands more precious materials — often from Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.

Still more problematic is the fact that outdated devices are too often discarded inappropriately. You don’t need to investigate very hard to find evidence of the toll this mineral mining and e-waste dumping takes on fragile ecosystems.

The emissions and e-waste numbers could be stretched even further if I went down the resource rabbit hole to factor in: electricity needed at the Amazon and Apple data centers; communication infrastructure needed to transmit digital files across vast distances; the incessant need to recharge or replace the batteries of eReaders; the resources needed to recycle a digital device (compared to how easy it is to pulp or recycle a book); the packaging and physical mailing of digital devices; the need to replace a device when it breaks (instead of replacing a book when it’s lost); the fact that every reader of eBooks requires his or her own eReading device (whereas print books can be loaned out as needed from a library); the fact that most digital devices are manufactured abroad (and therefore transported across oceans); and etc…

This is the ultimate result of our culture’s fetishization of technology — a problem which will assuredly worsen before it improves. It wasn’t long ago that sophisticated electronics were few and far between. I grew up in a house with one desktop computer, and it was located in the kitchen. That was eleven years ago, and when I remember all the times I argued with my brother over who got to play StarCraft, my memory seems as quaint and outdated as a scene from Mad Men. Today, my thirteen-year-old sister has her own laptop, smartphone, and television to supplement the two desktop computers, additional television set, and Kindle Fire located in my mother’s home.

There’s an Apple store in Grand Central Station that I pass each day on my way to work; every morning I watch hundreds of commuters browse iPads as though they were magazines or candy. In the end, this conspicuous (and often unnecessary) tech consumption — eReaders included — contributes to an inflating carbon footprint far beyond anything ever caused by traditional book production.

Of course, it’s slippery ethics to rationalize the book industry’s carbon footprint by focusing, instead, on the larger problem of the tech industry’s carbon footprint. Both are problems that need to be addressed. But for right now, if we’re forced to choose, the traditional paper route is the better one. If you worry for the future of our rainforests, and if you worry for the future of our planet, the responsible decision is to purchase or borrow books printed on recycled paper and from ecologically conscious vendors. (You can find a handy list of such places and printers here.)

While this tactic alone will not solve the problem, it will certainly make a difference if enough people choose library cards instead of Kindle Singles. And while it’s true that, now that digital has arrived, digital is here to stay, the book reading community needs to ask itself which is more important: developing a greener way to produce print books while we halt the growth of eBooks’ market share, committing fully to the creation of “greener” eReading devices — or some combination of both. Doing neither is not an option.

Raz Godelnik, CEO of Eco-Libris, estimates that 80% of a paperback book’s carbon footprint is caused by the earliest stages in its production process: paper harvesting, forest clearing, and material shipping. The BIEC recognized this, and one of its chief aims was to work on a more eco-friendly means of producing books. As consumers, though, we also have the power to fix this by demanding an even more responsible method of production from the largest publishing houses and their contractors. (This means we’d have to pay more for the end product, of course.) We must also demand better accountability from the technology companies that create eReaders, and that begins with demanding Amazon release better information about the Kindle.

Consumer outcry works: a few months ago, because everyone flipped out about the mistreatment of Foxconn workers, Apple instituted major changes to the pay structure for their subcontractors. If we can do this with labor, we can do this with resources.

We must also resist the urge to purchase the next hot technology when it comes out. If you have an eReader, use your eReader until it no longer works, and then recycle it responsibly. Do not purchase a new one before the old one has stopped working. If you own an eReader that you do not use, sell it to someone who will actually use it so that they don’t have to buy a fresh one. In simple terms: you wouldn’t buy a new edition of a book if nothing was wrong with the edition you already owned, so why would you do it with something ecologically equal to fifty of those books put together?

Image via Wikimedia Commons

works on special projects for The Millions. He lives in Baltimore and he frequents dive bars. His interests can be followed on his Tumblr, Nick Recommends and Twitter, @nemoran3.


  1. Great article, thank you.

    One point, though… iPads and eReader devices that uses an LCD screen (Kindle Fire, Nook Color) are much bigger power hogs than the eInk devices like the regular Nook and Kindle, which can run for a month on a single charge.

    So if you’re looking for a device to use primarily for reading (books, newspapers), an eInk device is a lot more efficient from a energy/carbon perspective than an iPad (and of course it’s also easier on your eyes).

  2. Fantastic article. I’ve been trying to convince people of this for ages with no scientific basis whatsoever–thanks for doing the leg work and writing it up so persuasively.

  3. Stop spreading FUD. Tablet usage is by and large displacing laptop and desktop computer usage. Since tablets are dramatically more energy efficient than either laptops, desktops, or TVs, they are yielding a net improvement per user in the carbon footprint of the “tech industry”.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everybody!

    Mr. Logan, I can see your point, and it’s a valid concern. Unfortunately, while some analysts predict tablets may soon start replacing laptops or PCs — indeed, this article ( claims there will be 760 million tablets on the market by 2016 — that does not mean there’s a net reduction in worldwide carbon emissions. In fact, it means quite the opposite.

    Consider how the price of a tablet is lower than the price of a laptop or PC, and how this allows a whole new sector of the market to become device owners. This results in a rise of tablet ownership concurrent with a rise of laptop and PC ownership — at least for the foreseeable future, until the devices are totally replaced (this trend is not so fast, however — there are still CD and record stores in this country). Beyond that, most tablets only last 3 years (see earlier article), which means tablets need to be replaced more often than laptops and PCs, and therefore they need to be created more often, and therefore they wind up costing the environment a lot more than more durable devices.

    Also, in this regard we’re only talking about personal computing. In the professional workforce, it’s going to be many years before desktop computers are supplanted by new devices. In fact, if anything offices with desktop computers will become more common before they go away entirely.

  5. I bet the people at NASA never thought that by the middle of the 21rst Century they would be in the sanitation business, but they will be.

  6. I think if there were more ebooks available (unless you’re using it mostly for fiction, the selection is rather abysmal) they’d be a better investment. I’d like one personally…but if I have to buy physical books still, for school and work specifically, it loses its point for me. If I could find every single book in ebook format, I’d buy one, but until that time I’m not convinced they’re worth it as more than a novelty.

  7. I do wonder what this data would look like if you could calculate it for e-ink screens. I imagine the lower consumption would be vastly lower on those devices!

  8. This is a persuasive argument, with an unfortunately limited context. As Jon Logan pointed out, iPads are displacing other devices as well, be they laptops, desktops, or televisions. I have a 42″ Plasma in my living room, which can suck down 300 watts at it it’s worst, and it is just the display, not even the renderer. So if I’m watching Netflix or cable, I’m using another box (one which is most likely always on).
    In this case, the iPad is nearly two orders of magnitude more efficient.

    But, that’s not reading books. But no one buys an iPad just for reading books.

    People buy Kindles just for reading books. If you don’t have numbers about them, your argument is relatively meaningless in the real world. It would be like comparing the stereo in my BMW to buying a guitar and playing music myself (I don’t have a BMW, and can’t play any instrument, FWIW).

    Of course, as long as I’m here, I should point out that at least one of the sources referenced is incorrect:
    “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.”

    The iPad consumes 4 watts in regular operation. That means the light source referenced here would need to consuming about 0.08 watts. It’s possible that a tiny subset of people have a book-only light that consumes this much, but pretty much everyone I know is using at the least an 8 watt fluorescent, if not a 40 or 60 watt incandescent.

    Ok, now on to the library card situation. Assuming the library is about 15 minutes away by car, and you make 6 trips over the course of the year, you are likely looking at at least 20,000 more grams per year in the book category. So the break even for iPads used solely as e-readers will come during the third year.

  9. First, a tablet and an e-reader are not one in the same. An iPad performs many other functions than simply displaying text, therefore using the iPad as your example is flawed reasoning.

    Second. while I doubt your “100 books worth of global warming” applies to the Kindle, I have already read at least that many.

    Third, where are you getting this “new e-reader every two years” data? E-readers have only really been mainstream for a few years now, and most of what existed before then was glitchy first-gen hardware. Of course the early adopters (who are not the majority) have replaced their iPad 1s, but that doesn’t mean all of us will follow that model.

    Look, I was resistant to e-readers at first too, but this article seems more like confirming biases than actual reasoning and research.

  10. Thanks for joining in on the discussion, Alec & alejo699!

    Of course you’re right that Kindle data is needed for a comprehensive overview of total eReading in this country. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t release any of that data (yet), and that’s why it’s important that consumers demand it. As to your (and Wei’s) claims about e-ink vs. tablet, however, I suspect that the Kindle Fire is more comparable (that is in terms of waste) to an iPad than a first or second generation e-ink Kindle. Likewise for Nook Colors. These tablets are beginning to outsell their e-ink brethren and I believe it’s only a matter of time before the e-ink group is the total minority.

    As to your point about driving to the library, I actually created an example in an early draft of this article that puts that in perspective. I’ll paste it right here:

    “These numbers worsen when you blow them up to account for an entire city’s population, too. Take the city of San Francisco as an example. According to the 2010 census (, the city boasted 805,235 residents. 587,821 of them were between the ages of 18-65. On a statewide average (, 22-20% of Californians should own an eReader of some kind, but let’s say only 10% of San Francisco adults own iPads. (The likelihood is that it’s considerably more, but let’s be safe.) Put together, that 10% of San Franciscans who own iPads account for ~7,645,736.12 kilograms of CO2e in a single year. As a comparison, that’s 86.76% of the lifetime emissions from the San Francisco Public Library’s entire print book collection, 2,195,124 volumes ( at last count. If all of those iPad users upgraded to an iPad 2 after two years, they’d account for twice as many carbon emissions as the entire library, too.”

    The larger point here is that, yes, theoretically, if everyone had an eReader and we could commit fully to eBooks, the carbon footprint would appear to minimize. In order for books to reach as many people as they do now, however, such a scenario would require that every book reader have their own eReader to use. This means each person would BEGIN with a carbon footprint in the neighborhood of 103,000 kg, and that’s before they’ve even plugged the thing in and begun using it (e.g. using energy, recharging it, and ultimately replacing it when it inevitably stops working).

    But that’s not the case, and it likely never will be. Instead, we’re going to have a future in which print and digital likely coexist depending on a particular society’s material wealth and technological infrastructure. A future in which everyone has eReaders is untenable as the material cost to even get to that point demands more resources than are currently on earth.

  11. You would have a valid point if we only used an e-reader for books. In most homes, reading books is just one of many ways we use iPads, Kindle Fires etc. They’ve replaced desktop computers, laptops and tvs that have the carbon footprint of 20 – 50 iPads.

    Hard to prove your point when you limit what tablets can do and will replace. They’re diehards who’ll never switch but with school age kids, they can’t wait to replace four hard cover textbooks with one tablet that they can read and then write their report on.

  12. Certainly something to think about. A couple thoughts I had:

    I suspect that even after 2 years, if someone gets a new eReader/iPad, they don’t simply throw their old one away. When I get a new device, I sell mine (on eBay or whatever). So at least in my case, somebody out there is getting a new-to-them eReader/iPad that didn’t have to be manufactured. I wonder how that would affect those numbers (if we could even possibly figure that out).

    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I wonder about the changing format of the book in general that is possible with eReaders/iPads, and how that affects things. For example, an iBook can have embedded multimedia, that itself might present more information in one ‘book’, causing less titles to be needed in general. Again, if its even possible to know this, any thoughts on how that might affect things?

  13. One factor not accounted for in these comparisons is the false assumption that we can process as much or more when reading onscreen vs. hard copy. We think having the words literally in hand, in the font size we specify, will enable us to absorb information as fast or faster than digging out a book. In fact:

    “silent reading from screen is significantly slower than reading from paper ( Kak,1981; Muter et al, 1982; Wright and Lickorish,1983; Gould and Grischkowsky, 1984; Smedshammar et al 1989). Figures vary according to means of calculation and experimental design but the evidence suggests a performance deficit of between 20% and 30% when reading from screen”​onscreen_​reading.pdf

  14. The fallacy of the argument is that the iPad is not an eReader and thus you have substituted two pineapples for the apples in your comparison of apples and oranges. It is a high-end tablet and fashion accessory. A Kindle Wifi and 3G has about 2 Gigabytes of memory compare to 8, 16, 32 and 64 for an iPad. It uses eInk, which means virtually no power consumption when the screen is not changing. There are many genuine eReaders dedicated to books and other texts, but none of them approach the cost, power consumption or size of the iPAd.

    Furthermore, the total footprint of an iPad is about one third of the CO2 emissions of a human simply breathing. A homeless person in America has a footprint over 8 tonnes, which is about twice that of a French or German middle class person. An average American has a footprint of 19-25 tonnes, or 19,000,000 to 25,000,000 grams a year.

    According to one source, I need to read 22.5 books to offset the emissions of my Kindle. I’ve read that many in the last four months and more. eReaders are not average readers. Average readers are illiterates who occasionally pick up a paper back in the airport.

    I know that using the browser on my Kindle uses as much power in about 30 minutes as the reader uses in a month. If the iPad is this costly (and it is likely to be many, many times more costly since it is basically a complete computer that only works when connected to the Cloud, then the iPad might easily be 50 times more costly than the Kindle, let alone cheaper models of the Aluratek, Sony, Kindle, or what not. You don’t say which iPad you used as your basis: 8, 16, 32 or 64Gigs? Even used solely as an eReader, the iPad would be a hog because it is a really complex and costly device, running easily over the $200 price point which separates eReaders from tablets and colour eReaders with a tonne of bells and whistles such as email, browsers, cameras, etc. Indeed, the iPad 2 is easily over $800 in Canada, four times the price of the real eReaders.

    You should go back to the drawing board and find out what an eReader really costs in terms of emissions. To be sure, every consumer product that is additional to current consumption is going to add to global carbon emissions. But that is true of every thing we buy and every breath we take as our population grows in size and wealth.

    The real carbon cost of these electronic devices is coal, oil and natural gas consumption for electricity generation, smelting, manufacturing, etc. In Ontario, 75% of the electricity comes from hydro-electric and nuclear power generation, in Texas or West Virginia, not so much–the US average is somewhere around half fossil fuels.

    You know, maybe you should have included the cost of building book stores in your calculations. After all, Kindles come from, which is composed of giant warehouses with NO retail stores to speak of (yet). The same is true of many eReaders–even iPads. NO store versus many tiny independant bookstores is a carbon emissions comparison that is relevant to my interests.

    The city I live in now has more bookstores than the province I used to live in. And most of them are within walking distance. But the UPS Store is around the corner and the Public Library an easy walk. Buildings make a difference as do roads, bridges and cars.

  15. An ipad is a multi-function device, of which ebooks are a tiny part.

    Perhaps, for your article to be taken seriously, you might try measuring an _actual e-reader_ – an e-ink device such as the Kindle.

    On top of this, add the fact that e-readers are adopted usually by heavy readers (I read an average of 150 books a year).

    Casual 8 book a year readers are more likely to read on a multi-function device, like the ipad or a smartphone – devices which they would have anyway and use for other purposes.

    Terribly slanted article.

  16. I appreciate everybody’s responses. This is the kind of discussion I had hoped to have.

    Brant, I especially appreciate the points you bring up. They’re good ones, and I agree with a couple of them. You are right that it’s unfortunate Amazon doesn’t release emissions data about its Kindle products. As you (and some of the others) have pointed out, that information is necessary for a comprehensive overview of eReaders in this country.

    However, I don’t agree with your inference that iPads are leagues ahead of other eReaders in terms of waste, emissions, and energy use. A Kindle Fire (now the best-selling model of Kindle, by the way), the Nook Color, and the Kobo Touch have more in common with iPads than they do with their predecessor eInk models. I address this fact in section 4 of my essay above. While there was a brief time when the most popular eReaders consumed minimal energy, that time has begun to pass, and the future of these devices skews more on the end of the tablet spectrum than the eInk one. Their price tags are irrelevant to that point.

    Your point about the average human’s carbon footprint is also a non sequitur. I could burn a pile of leaves in my backyard and it’d amount to fewer emissions than my yearlong carbon footprint, but that doesn’t mean I should grab my rake and lighter, does it? Likewise, saying that because “every consumer product that is additional to current consumption is going to add to global carbon emissions” is a valid justification for embracing evermore consumptive devices is a bit like saying “well, the ship’s sinking anyway, so there’s no harm in spilling buckets of water on deck.”

    You’re also right about the coal, oil and natural gas consumption that rises concurrently with the proliferation of personal eReaders (eInk or tablet) and every other electronic gadget on the market. That’s a real problem, and it’s getting worse each time a new gadget enters the marketplace. Yet I fail to see how your point about this runs counter to my argument that eReaders (both their manufacture and the technological infrastructure necessary to support them) is worse for the environment than the alternative: the status quo in which paper books are printed.

    Stores are stores. To say that one is worse than another isn’t really relevant here, either. Yes, there are bookstores. But there are also Best Buys, Targets, Apple stores, and Walmarts. All of these places sell tablets and eReaders. Additionally, people aren’t clearing down forests in the name of building independent bookstores. On the contrary, bookstores are closing all across America and Canada — those spaces are then quickly adapted into new stores, not vacant spaces, and that’s because bookstores don’t spring up in vacuums, they spring up in highly populated places with buildings already in existence. (Otherwise, who would visit them?) Amazon, however, contributes to the even worse (for the environment) model of shipping books far distances from its centralized, climate controlled warehouses — often in Texas or Arizona. I’m going to call it a wash in this regard.

    The simple point my essay is making is this. Since, for the average person, the initial material and environmental cost of owning an eReader is 200-250% larger than the initial material and environmental cost of owning a year’s worth of books, it stands to reason that the only way to make eReaders environmentally sustainable is to allow only the most voracious readers to have them.

    This idea is theoretically rosy, but mathematically unrealistic. A full 19-22% (source: of all US adults own eReaders and tablets. If that demographic consisted entirely of “voracious readers,” the publishing industry’s profits would rival those in Silicon Valley. As we all know, that’s not the case. Instead, eReaders and tablets are being purchased by people with disposable income regardless of how often they read, and regardless of whether or not it offsets their carbon footprint. As I said in the essay, 20% of all Kindles are unused after Christmas. That 20% of Kindles probably equals many years worth of print books.

    I encourage you to read Ted Genoways’ VQR article linked above. It succinctly sums up what I was trying to say: it’s untenable for everyone to have an eReader. It’s an impossible future.

  17. The vast differences between print and eBooks are highlighted by the way our culture perceives them. There is something sacrosanct about an ancient volume that has changed hands more times than one can count, its pages yellowed and annotated with each successive reader. Books like this don’t “upgrade” to the latest version, instead they are preserved by the love with which they are treated by each successive reader. In this way they appreciate in value over time; the opposite is true of eReaders (and all digital technology, for that matter).

    Great article!

  18. I find the most upsetting statistic to be that the average adult reads 6.5 books per year. Aside from that appalling fact, the analysis should include how many books the average EREADER owner reads….that’s really the question. For avid readers, ebooks definitely are green.

  19. I agree with Liz, I find it hard to believe that an average reader only reads 6.5 books per year, if that is even remotely true, I feel very sorry for the average reader.

  20. Those doubting the 6.5 books / year figure should note that this is the U.S. average as established by AP/Ipsos Public Affairs. In the survey, linked above, the mode (most repeated number) was actually b/w 4-5 books per year.

    These figures seem extremely low to us, of course, as we all obviously read quite often, and likely we surrounded ourselves with people who do the same. Bear in mind that we are not the majority of this or any other country.

  21. About the study: The one I know is by Öko-Institut Freiburg in Germany and is, unfortunately, in German. It says generally (on an average eInk reader like the Kobo or Kindle devices) carbon footprint is offset when reading at least 11 books a year, even taking recycled paper into consideration. Given that eReaders only use about 0.7 kWh of energy per year on average almost all of the carbon footprint for both paper and eInk is produced during the devices’ initial production.
    However, eReaders do sport problems by not being easily recyclable.

  22. A couple of thoughts.

    1. The average owner of dedicated ebook readers reads rather more than the average American (I am not sure of the exact number, but I am sure it is more than 6.5 books per year).

    2. A tablet, even a kindle fire or Nook Color is not bought merely to read books but to be general purpose media devices. In fact, I suspect quite a few iPad purchasers will rarely if ever read a book on them. That being the case, it is hardly fair to assign the entire device footprint to ebooks since ebooks are not their primary purpose. Indeed, this would be like assigning the entire footprint of a PC to ebooks assuming a reader uses his laptop to read ebooks (and some do). To be fair, we need usage data for tablets to assign a percentage of the footprint.

    3. Since we are including tablets, a big use of tablets is to replace magazines and newspapers (something that is less common with dedicated e-readers). It would be interesting to see how many paper magazine subscriptions (and their footprints) are being replaced by tablet based subscriptions and what that does for the equation.

  23. MarylandBill, I think you inadvertently explained the 6.5 books/year average in your comment: “I suspect quite a few iPad purchasers will rarely if ever read a book on them.” Likewise for the fact (noted in my original post) that 1 in 5 Kindles sits unused after being purchased. Indeed, even the Pew study cited in that HuffPo piece notes that there could be “more than 50 million Americans don’t read books at all.” With all of these zeros factored in, the mathematical average is going to be reduced. I agree with you that most people who read eBooks are generally more voracious readers than those who do not, but with all of the zeroes included, the average is the average.

    More importantly, here is a quote from the Pew study that’s kind of misrepresented in the HuffPo piece: “Some 78% of those ages 16 and older say they read a book in the past 12 months. Those readers report they have read an average (or mean number) of 17 books in the past year and 8 books as a median (midpoint) number.” — In other words, those 17 & 8 books per year figures refer ONLY to the “78% of those ages 16 and older” who have read in the past 12 months. Therefore the zeroes were not factored into those calculations.

  24. Great article – provocative and timely.

    As an architect, with a pedigree in sustainability, I’d add that calculation of exact carbon emissions relative to each pathway to getting a “book” in readers’ hands is currently impossible. Global production lines offer too many variants in where the process starts and ends, where and how materials are sourced, and how the items are utlimately disposed of.

    Similarly, how can we really know how many books the average reader reads – or what their usage motiviation is for buying any product? (Is Huffington Post now a credible source?)

    But this level of detail doesn’t preclude a conclusion based on general data (and common sense): digital devices are positive advances on many fronts, but to claim they are a step forward in sustainability is just silly.

  25. should be added to the list of ecologically conscious vendors. they don’t print but they sell used books and have somewhat greener shipping options.

  26. Everyone forgets that electricity costs fossil fuels, but I’d rather save the trees than the air. Thanks for the article.

  27. Your very interesting article doesn’t seem to adequately address transport of books. When the UPS truck belches out diesel as it passes my house, I am thinking that’s a great environmental cost. One stop to bring me a book probably cost a fair amount of diesel and added CO2 and particulates to the atmosphere.

    And there’s the “I was going to buy a tablet anyway” factor. If the tablet is already bought, there is no additional environmental cost.

  28. I would be careful quoting that VQR article. Of the statistics pulled from that single quote, 2 of the 3 numbers used as a premise in your article are demonstrably false. The last one, taken in that context, probably shouldn’t be trusted without corroboration.

    Stat 1) eBook readers replaced within 2 years on average. Maybe, maybe not.
    Stat 2) Only 25 million books sold in the US annually. Seriously? In 2006, the book industry was worth $35 Billion. 25 million books would place the entire book industry in the sub-billion dollar range. This statistic is incorrect by at least a factor of 10.
    Stat 3) An iPad requires 50x the fossil fuel of a light-bulb, per hour. Say what? ~3 watts is not 50x more than 8-13 watts. At the very least, the fellow you are quoting needs to show his work if he is talking about an especially efficient single-purpose book light.

    Don’t take that first statistic as a given when your only source for it can’t get the other two statistics right.

  29. Hi Sam,

    Regarding your second point above, which is a good one, I actually don’t use Genoways’ calculation of book sales in my data. My calculations are based on average book consumption and reading habits, and I derived them myself. For the Genoways passage, I merely reproduced his paragraph in full in order to give the early sentences therein as much context as possible. (I will note that I hold the VQR as a lofty and reputable publication, but I can’t really comment on how he arrived at that 25m figure.) The part of his calculation that I did use is the 2 to 2-1/2 year replacement schedule, and that part seems less contentious based not only on anecdotal and visual evidence, but also the sheer number of iPads that are sold each year and have been sold so far.

    Likewise, I utilized the usage figures from Apple itself in my calculations, not Genoways’ calculations.

  30. Sam isn’t the first one to point out the inaccuracy of Genoways’ figures. It seems like the prudent thing to do, would be to stop referencing it or at least frame it differently, as written now it suggests you endorse these as sound figures which drags down the legitimacy of your own article.

    I was going to comment on the 50x power thing until I saw it already had been.

    The VQR may well be a reputable publication however that doesn’t mean it’s infallible.

  31. This is a well-meaning but seriously flawed piece of writing.

    In main body you only give figures for a TABLET not and e-reader. Tablet PCs and e-readers are not the same thing, one type of gadget has a backlit LCD scren whilst the other uses e-ink. One is a portable general purpose computer the other is fairly dedicated to reading books. One lasts about 12 hours per charge the other lasts for months.

    This has been repeatedly pointed out in other comments, and the author’s response has been to say that there are other tablets such as the Kindle fire. Well duh. But this article claims to be about e-readers, not tablets. But the only calculations produced are not for an e-reader. Amazon aren’t the only people who make e-readers – Sony, Kobo and others make e-ink based devices whose footprints will similarly be far far lower than that of any LCD based tablet (which even without the extra processing power needed for video and other multimedia tasks would have a far greater power requirement because of the screen type).

    A tablets vs books footprint article makes little sense because tablets are general purpose computers, not e-readers. An e-reader vs books footprint article does make sense, and this is what your article pretends it is, but seeing as you don’t provide any figures for any e-reader this clearly isn’t what your article actually is.

  32. Hi Syx,

    As I’ve pointed out above, Amazon doesn’t release any of their emissions data. That said, the top-selling devices for reading eBooks, at present, are the standard Kindle, the iPad (and the iPad 2), the Nook Color and the Kindle Fire. As I stated in an above comment: “I don’t agree with your inference that iPads are leagues ahead of other eReaders in terms of waste, emissions, and energy use. A Kindle Fire (now the best-selling model of Kindle, by the way), the Nook Color, and the Kobo Touch have more in common with iPads than they do with their predecessor eInk models. I address this fact in section 4 of my essay above. While there was a brief time when the most popular eReaders consumed minimal energy, that time has begun to pass, and the future of these devices skews more on the end of the tablet spectrum than the eInk one”

    It is indeed a shame that Amazon doesn’t release their full emissions numbers. That would go a long way to ensuring that consumers make responsible and sustainable purchases.

  33. Whenever someone brings up the fact that iPads are general purpose computers and are as such also used for other things, so you can’t really blame all the power usage on books, you say “yes, but, the most popular eReaders are much more like iPads than their previous models.” Well if that’s true, and I agree, then these are all also multipurpose computers and as such are still not good model for reading use alone.

    Therefore, your data using the iPad are still flawed. You would have to work out a percentage of tablet use that can be attributed to reading eBooks then factor that in. Or use data from a dedicated eReader producer that does publish its figures, and only talk about dedicated eReader usage. Or both.

    But as a previous commenter noted, the “I already have/am going to get a tablet” argument applies and you can’t attribute 100% of the production emissions of a tablet used as an eReader to the use of it as an eReader.

    All that said, I would like to take your point in your original article that it is unfair to transfer a book industry problem to a tech industry problem and extend it even further. I would put forward that it is an energy industry problem. Get off our reliance on fossil fuels, seriously invest in renewable sources of energy, and we can eliminate the running costs of electrical devices altogether.

  34. at what rate books do go sooner or later into waste disposal because they don’t sell or are worn out? what’s the cost to the environment of disposing of these?

  35. “While there was a brief time when the most popular eReaders consumed minimal energy, that time has begun to pass, and the future of these devices skews more on the end of the tablet spectrum than the eInk one”

    This assertion is in my view a fundamental misreading of the e-ink and tablet markets that goes a long way to explaining the weakness of the information presented here.

    Amazon and B&N are happy to market LCD tablets alongside their e-ink readers because the tablets sell for more money and enable them to market movies and TV shows to you after purchase. It’s in their interest, and Apple’s, to conflate these devices. It is not in our interest as environmentally conscious readers to embrace the conflation and I would appreciate it if you Nick would stop doing that.

    If the market for tablets like the Fire is growing faster than that of regular Kindle e-ink readers, that simply tells us that more people like watching video than they like reading, which we should have known already. (Compare TV sales to… anything else.) It does not tell us that e-ink readers are being supplanted.Just ask a friend who uses e-ink to read books if they are planning on switching to a tablet to read books. This will give you better insight into the devices you are writing about.

    Finally, I have avoided the word “eReader” to avoid the confusion you’ve sown, but when your headline is about “eReaders” no one is thinking about iPads. Those of us who do use e-ink readers have read the whole piece looking for some relevant information and found none, only to be told to go demand it from Amazon ourselves. That would be kind of your job if you want to be the person to write about, “Are eReaders Really Green”.

    Also you should remove or annotate the embarrassingly mistaken or misleading “iPad is 50x power consumption of electric light” thing. Also I read this blog post and wrote this comment on my power-hog laptop, and look forward to your next post on “Are Blog Posts About eReaders (By Which I Mean iPads) Really Green?”

  36. 2 points.
    1. Books are printed in a big for an edition. If all books aren’t sold, there is a percentage of books that gather dust. (The worse the book, the higher the percentage) A higher number of books lie unsold in a second-hand market where owners dispose old books they no longer read. I can appreciate why this cannot be taken into account into the impact of a printed book. For e-books, this is not an issue at all.

    2. The main impact of e-readers is the assumption that they are all recharged with electricity which is generated by fossil fuels. What if devices were charged with solar power? What if manufacturers added batteries in devices that charge with clean energy?

  37. I just have to say that since I have a smartphone, I use my home computer less and less.

    I don’t have an additional device for reading, I read on my phone. I also don’t need to turn lights on to read at night. I do need my phone; no matter if I choose print or e-books, I would still need to buy a phone.

    I read a lot faster on screen than on paper, and I read more books since I have a smartphone because I don’t need to worry about storage, gathering dust or extremely high prices of print books in my country. Besides, I can read faster because I can carry all of my books everywhere I go. I guess you are just taking the US into account, but like somebody else said, I always sell my smartphones; in my country, we cannot afford to discard expensive stuff so quickly.

  38. I’ve been a big fan of e-readers for some time now. My original Kindle 2.0, which I had shipped from the USA to the UK before the UK Kindle store opened, lasted me two and a half years.

    I only upgraded to my current entry level Kindle as a result of a Christmas gift – otherwise I would still be using my old Kindle 2.0. My next upgrade will be a Paperwhite on my birthday – which means that the entry level Kindle has survived for two and a half years.

    E-reader owners don’t tend to upgrade as often as tablet users or smartphone owners. The fact that they (e-readers) use much less energy than tablets is important in the decision as to whether or not they are better for the environment.

    Personally, I read at least one book a week. Even if I adopt the higher end figures of 50 books or so to be break even, I think I am better of with an e-reader.

    I guess that the break even point must be much higher if you read on a tablet computer – but I do not find the back-lit screen to be pleasant to read on anyway, so, although I also have a tablet, I won’t be doing that.

    Over the piece, I think that e-readers are definitely green – at least for those who read a reasonable number of books and who won’t be upgrading their reader every time a new one comes out.

    If you don’t read a lot of books, then an e-reader is not a smart choice – but if you don’t read a lot of books then you’re not devouring too many trees to feed your “need to read” anyway.

  39. Doesn’t take into account the returns system of publishing in the US, UK and no doubt some other countries:
    Or ferrying books about to be pulped, when they have become unsaleable second hand.
    People who move often and have have thousands of books aren’t factored in – a pretty small population – but the nuisance of repeated packing and unpacking, and the extra it was no doubt costing to move those boxes, has been the bggest reason driving me to use the ereader much more, a basic eInk device.

    Getting people to replace ereaders less often, preferably use them until they stop working, would be a good goal. I get the impression some people grow out of the early adopter, flash new gadget every year, thing – I and some friends have as we’ve got older – but there are still lots of people who see it as cool and environmentalism doesn’t seem to do much to address that.

  40. What’s most frightening of this all is that the REAL cost for the environment is not on the consumer side, but on the industrial side. We are shifting away responsibility to corporations (by using their products and buying their services) form ourselves, and they do a massively poor job of it. In fact, the choices they make represent us, and we are not even aware of them!

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