Natural Life Magazine

Ask Natural Life:
Which is Greener: Pixels or Paper?
By Wendy Priesnitz

e-books versus paper books
Photo Dmitry Lobanov/Shutterstock

Q: I see that you have gone totally digital with your magazines, as well as publishing e-books. I wonder if you have calculated which is more environmentally friendly: an e-reader or an “old-fashioned” print book or magazine?

A: To find the definitive answer to this question, one would need to conduct a life-cycle assessment of e-readers, computers, magazines, and books. A life-cycle assessment evaluates the ecological impact of a product, at every stage of its existence, including the raw materials, manufacturing process, delivery to market, its use by the owner, and its disposal. While assessing a typical printed product is relatively simple, it’s more difficult to undertake a life-cycle assessment of electronic products because the manufacturers refuse to disclose what chemicals are in them, apparently for proprietary reasons.

Nevertheless, there have been some attempts, with differing results.

In one analysis, conducted by the Cleantech Group and released in the summer of 2009, the research and media company drew on existing studies and found that the carbon emissions from electronic books are lower than those from traditional book publishing. (They didn’t study magazines.)

The report compared the environmental impact of Amazon’s Kindle with that of printed books and concluded that, on average, the carbon emitted in the lifecycle of a Kindle is fully offset after the first year of use. However, because Amazon won’t release information about its Kindle’s manufacturing details, the study apparently referred to studies that analyzed different but similar electronic devices, which resulted in an educated “guestimation” of its carbon footprint.

The report states: “The roughly 168 kg of CO2 produced throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle is a clear winner against the potential savings: 1,074 kg of CO2 if replacing three books a month for four years; and up to 26,098 kg of CO2 when used to the fullest capacity of the Kindle DX. Less-frequent readers attracted by decreasing prices still can break even at 22.5 books over the life of the device.”

Another investigation was conducted by writers Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris. Goleman blogged about their analysis and it was published in The New York Times last April. They calculated the number of publications that a person would need to read on their e-reader to break ecologically even, so to speak: “With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly forty to fifty books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s one hundred books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.”

Other people have produced bits and pieces of information.

The U.S. book and newspaper industries combined use about 125 million trees a year and consume 153 billion gallons of water annually, according to figures by the nonprofit group Green Press Initiative. On the other hand, researchers estimate that just seventy-nine gallons of water are needed to make each e-reader.

We also know that toxic chemicals are a problem for both print and digital publishing. The production of ink for printing releases a number of volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, including hexane, toluene, and xylene. E-readers require the mining of nonrenewable minerals, such as columbite-tantalite and lithium. One e-reader apparently requires the extraction of thirty-three pounds of minerals, while a book made with recycled paper uses two-thirds of a pound. We are told that both the iPad and the Kindle comply with Europe’s RoHS standards, which ban some of the scarier chemicals that have been involved in electronics production. (We don’t know about the other devices.)

The servers and computers that produce and deliver digital publications use a great deal of energy. Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have estimated that the average server consumes 4,505 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, a figure that includes the power used to cool the hardware. (The average American household uses a bit more than 10,000 kWh of electricity annually.) A 2007 report by the Gartner Group warned about the “carbon cost” of all the servers that comprise the Internet: “The intense power requirements needed to run and cool data centers now account for almost a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions from information and communications technology.”

Also to be taken into account is the amount of energy used to power a desktop computer, or to charge a portable device’s battery. Apple says that its iPad uses just three watts of electricity while you’re reading, far less than the light bulb needed to read a conventional book at night.

There are other issues, the impact of which can only be estimated. They include the environmental, health. and social impacts of the electronic waste created if a device is discarded each time the owner upgrades.

There are also some things that aren’t properly considered in these comparisons. For instance, we agree with the guy whose rough analysis of the Kindle was used in the Cleantech study that more care should be taken when researchers are conducting lifecycle analyses of books and magazines. They don’t seem to be factoring in the impact of the publishing industry’s wasteful overproduction and the warehousing, transportation, and disposal of unsold stock. And what does it do to the carbon footprint calculations when increasing numbers of books are produced in China...or if your country has to import its e-readers because none are manufactured there...or if you want to subscribe to a magazine that’s published in another country?

In an article in the Washington Post in August of 2010, environmental writer Brian Palmer suggested that we “think of an e-reader as the cloth diaper of books.” Producing an e-reader is tougher on the environment than printing a book, he acknowledged. But, he pointed out, “Every time you download and read an electronic book, rather than purchasing a new pile of paper, you’re paying back a little bit of the carbon dioxide and water deficit from the [e-book] production process.” And since the typical e-reader can provide access to thousands of books (that therefore don’t need to be printed), there’s a big pay-back.

So we think that it really comes down to usage – how many people read one book or magazine in print versus how many books or magazines one reads on an electronic device, whether one subscribes to a print magazine or buys it on the newsstand, whether the book is bought online or in a bookstore, whether or not you recycle books and magazines when you’re finished reading them, whether the digital version is read on a portable device or a desktop computer, if the purchaser prints out the digital product, if people would still buy computers even if there were no e-books and digital magazines, and so on.

But even then, there are some value judgments that must be made as part of this discussion. Some analysts say that if you want to ease the environmental impact of reading print books, buy them online because bricks-and-mortar bookstores are very inefficient because they stock more books than they can sell and the remainder get shipped back to publishers or recycled. On the other hand, local independent bookstores are important to sustaining their local economies…. You get the picture about how complicated this is.

So the answer to the question is that we don’t know for sure whether print magazines and books are environmentally better or worse than digital versions. But it appears that if you’re a power reader of electronic books, magazines, and newspapers, and don’t trade in your gadget every year, reading electronically could lighten your environmental impact.

We do know that digital versions of books and magazines are cheaper for us to produce and deliver. And that means that we can continue, even in a continuingly difficult economy, to bring you the same quality of information that we've been publishing since 1976. And that gets to the heart of why we are adopting digital publishing: The large majority of our readers are here on the Internet. And, unfortunately, they are used to accessing free or very inexpensive information here. Like every other publishing business, we are attempting to navigate these uncharted waters.

Responsible Digital Reading Tips

  • Research your new electronic purchase to see which companies have the  best environmental and social responsibility ratings.
  • Only purchase an e-book reader if you are a power reader and plan to buy lots of books.
  • Consider purchasing a multi-purpose device like a netbook or tablet, rather than having many single-purpose pieces of technology.
  • Don't upgrade your device each time a new version is created.
  • Pass along your old, but still working, e-reader to someone else.
  • Try not to print out your e-books, or print judiciously.
  • Recycle your broken electronic devices responsibly, either through manufacturer takeback programs or non-profit or municipal recycling programs.

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's editor. She has been a journalist for over 40 years and is the author of 13 books. This article has been updated since it was first published in Natural Life Magazine's November/December 2010 issue.


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