Spot the Empire Librarian's blog

Welcome to a librarian's online musings on libraries, literature and information media.

Guilty pleasure of reading…..or contemplating the carbon break-even point of the Kindle.

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We encourage our students to be   enthusiastic readers..using the school library,  borrowing items from their public library,  browsing book fair shelves, downloading audio and ebooks from our school website. However, with the recent passing of Earth Day, one must wonder to the  environmental impact  of traditional publishing has on our  planet’s health. Could the ebook/audio book digital download  movement be environmentally healthier to Mother Earth?

Unfortunately, the business of publishing books, newspapers, and magazines has a large environmental impact. In addition to the tens of millions of trees harvested every year, paper manufacturing is responsible for 11 percent of all freshwater consumed by industrial nations, and is associated with an annual discharge of 153 billion gallons of wastewater.

Which brings me to ebook readers like Amazon’s Kindle—could they be better for the environment than physical books? There’s no question that the production of ebook readers have their own environmental costs, ranging from mining for the natural resources and minerals that go into their production, to the energy used in the manufacturing process, to the emissions associated with disposing of and/or recycling the readers at the end of their useful life.

According to a 2009 brief by the Cleantech Group, an average book has a carbon footprint of about 7.46 kg of CO2. By comparison, the average Kindle has a carbon footprint of approximately 168 kg of CO2 over its lifetime. This means that if you were to purchase a Kindle, you would “break even” on the greenhouse gas impacts once your use of the Kindle led you to avoid the purchase of 22.5 physical books; any ebook purchased beyond the first 22.5 books would be akin to preventing 7.46 kg of CO2 emissions, in addition to reducing the use of natural resources (e.g. water and wood fiber) that would have gone into a physical book.

For instance, if  you read about 20 books last year:   given or purchased 7 new books, and the rest  checked out from the local library, bought from a used bookstore, or were borrowed from  friends,  it would take about three years of Kindle use  to realize any net greenhouse gas benefit.  Upgrading to a newer ebook reader model before reaching the “break even” emissions point of 22.5 ebooks would appear as a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions when compared with the carbon footprint of physical books. Further, the potential environmental benefits of ebook readers will only come to fruition if the publishing industry actually decreases production of physical books—from this perspective, ebook readers are only a means to an end.

If the overall goal is to reduce demand for (and therefore production of) physical books, I’m left feeling confused on how to proceed. In the short term at least, I’ll stick with my library card, since it prevents me from purchasing new books and allows me to share the environmental impact of my reading habit with other library patrons. Still, access to lending libraries has definitely not slowed the growth of the publishing industry, and the growing demand for ebooks (while still a very small share of the market) is a transparent message for publishing houses that the production of physical books may not be necessary. If we want to actually change the way the publishing industry does business, perhaps encouraging use of ebook readers is an important tool to make use of. Could an ebook reader be the way to go in the end?

as cited by Nicole Schuetz | April 26, 2011


Author: spotwin

While I am a librarian , I am a reading cheerleader. The purpose of this library blog is to better promote reading and information literacy to community. I love books, reading to my son,properly placed apostrophes,canoeing, locating the nearest Starbucks, cheering the Montreal Canadians, and Cherry Garcia ice cream.

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