To e-read, or not to e-read? An Environmental Question

Stack of books
Virtual realities: the e-book was previously thought to herald the end of its printed forerunner, but this fear has abated in recent years.

Most students that have trekked back to Durham with a suitcase full of the reading list for the year, will recognise the allure of the ‘e-book’. Posited as a library at your fingertips, the e-reader has recently enjoyed commercial success and has often been promoted as an ethical way of enjoying books. But the sustainability – in both industry and environmental senses – of the e-reader can yet be questioned.

The e-reader phenomenon originated in 2004 with the release of the ‘Sony Librie’, but Sony’s predominance was contested in 2007 with the ‘Amazon Kindle’ (Matthew Sparkes, The Telegraph). Since then the varieties of e-reader have only proliferated, but this unceasing growth seems to be reaching a plateau. A report found that e-book sales fell for the first time in 2015, perhaps signalling the end of the e-reader’s long reign. The environmental aspects of the e-reader have long served as only a footnote to the debates surrounding this technology, but are perhaps worth investigating in the context of ever increasing environmental pressures and the drive towards sustainable lifestyles.


‘E-reader’ as panacea?

The e-reader is promoted as a means of saving the resources involved in book production, and as a means of countering the carbon costs involved with processes such as transportation. As Lucy Siegle reports in her review of the e-reader’s ‘eco-smugness’ rating: ‘[u]se an Amazon Kindle to full storage capacity and it is claimed you can offset the emissions caused by its manufacture in a year. Keep it longer and you save 168kg of CO2 per year (the amount produced by 22.5 real books).’

But this is perhaps discounting the shipment and transport of the e-reader device itself. The New York Times published a ‘life-cycle assessment’ of the e-reader and tablet, focussing on its environmental impacts in dialogue with those of a traditional book. The average e-reader ‘requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals’, compared with ‘two thirds of a pound of minerals’ for a book made from recycled paper (Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris, The New York Times). Siegle also raises the question of the ethics of the devices’ production, citing the conditions involved in the factories where they are produced where ‘nitrogen and sulphur oxides’ are dealt with. A major factor associated with the doubted sustainability of book production is consistently that of water use; but the e-reader is said to use 79 gallons over the course of its manufacturing compared to a book’s 2 gallons (see The New York Times’ report for more statistics regarding this issue).


Conscientious compromises

In order to resolve this highly subjective issue to some extent, perhaps the second-hand book and the library should be forwarded as means of reading ethically.

For some, nothing can be invented to interrupt the age old relationship between a book and its reader

Students are perhaps one of the demographic subsets most familiar with this means of book-buying, but it can yet be restated that this way is the most ethical and environmentally viable. Buying second-hand books is just another form of recycling; it prolongs the life of the printed text and avoids the consumption of primary resources involved in producing a new book. Fortunately in Durham there appears to be no shortage of sources for purchasing second-hand books. Buying through charity bookshops compounds the ethical merit of the purchase. However, as a safeguard for finding a particularly elusive text, internet sites remain, even if this is a recourse that incurs the additional carbon costs involved in delivery.

But of course this leaves out surely the most environmentally positive means of reading: the library. As Goleman and Norris note, ‘the most ecologically virtuous way of reading a book starts with walking to your local library’ (The New York Times). But as libraries across the country are closed due to council cutbacks, this opportunity for sustainable reading is perhaps being missed. This is yet another reason adding impetus to the need to save our public libraries. In a student context library availability is clearly not an issue, but an article in The Guardian recently highlighted the way in which cutbacks are already impacting library usage across the country. There is also a recent case study to be found in Sheffield’s Central Library, which is prospectively to be turned into a hotel. The idea of public libraries as sustainable resources adds another dimension to the argument for helping them to thrive.  



It can evidently be seen that both the conventional text and the e-book format have environmental and economic merits, but yet can be found out as ethically imperfect means of enjoying books. As is usual in concerns over environmental lifestyles, solutions are not singular and decisions are clearly a matter of consumer preference.

Both Siegle’s and Goleman and Norris’s reports suggest that ultimately it is the consumer’s use of the e-reader that determines its environmental integrity. Whether or not the device has green benefits hinges on the degree to which it is made use of, in other words, how many printed books the e-reader offsets. The eco-friendliness of the device is quite literally in your hands.

So, though the e-reader has its uses, arguing for it on environmental grounds is perhaps erroneous. Nonetheless, for some the ‘e-reader’ is simply a foregone conclusion; no mere matter of convenience can atone for the loss of the distinct scent of a new book, or for that matter, the peculiar fustiness of an old one. For some, nothing can be invented to interrupt the age old relationship between a book and its reader.

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