It’s Easy Being Green: How to Be a Greener Reader

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With the proliferation of e-book readers and online news, it seems an appropriate time to ask: What’s greenest way to read?

In short: we’re not sure, and it depends. Some evidence points to e-readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, as better than both print and online reading. These devices allow you to download books and view them on a sharp-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper. But the most effective tool for comparing all the alternatives is a Life Cycle Analysis, which takes into account the environmental impacts of each reading method from production to transportation to waste. Several such analyses have been performed with varying conclusions.

Each option’s environmental impact is concentrated in a different place. The biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the book industry is from paper production, accounting for almost 70 percent of the industry’s emissions. For e-book readers, the most carbon-intensive step is production of the device itself. The greatest impact of reading online is the energy that it takes to power the computer while reading.

The Book Industry Study Group released a report with the Green Press Initiative last year estimating that the publishing industry “produced a carbon dioxide equivalent net emission of about 12.4 million tons in 2006, and a net emission of 8.85 pounds per book sold to consumers,” an amount that’s not unusual for manufactured products. Each year, according to the Green Press Initiative, over 30 million trees are used to make books in the United States alone, while the newspaper industry consumed 8.7 million metric tons of paper last year.

One study out of Sweden—and broken down by Matthew McDermott at Treehugger—indicated that print and online newspapers could be comparable in their emissions, depending on the source of power used to power the computers, how far trees have to travel to the paper plants, how far paper has to travel from plant to printer, how long you read the paper, and a host of other factors.

Greg Kozak’s master’s thesis in the pre-Kindle days of 2003 concluded that books are responsible for four times the greenhouse gas emissions as e-readers, owing in large part to paper production, electricity use, and personal transportation. And a study by two Berkeley students found that paper newspapers released 32-140 times more CO2 and 26-185 times the amount of water as newspapers read on PDA devices.

Lifecycle analyses like these also have a hard time taking into account larger social costs of production, such as devastating conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo caused largely by the trade in precious metals used to make electronics or land rights disputes between paper plantation owners and indigenous people in Brazil.

If you’re not sold on e-book readers (and their high price tags), there are other ways to be a greener reader. Hopping on your bike and pedaling to the local library reduces both your personal transportation impact and is a much more eco-friendly way to read a book than buying it brand new since it avoids all the costs associated with publishing and transporting them. Your local second-hand bookseller is also a good choice for finding reused goods, and websites like swaptree.com let you trade your used items with other users and keep more trash out of landfills. Schools, nursing homes, gyms, or shelters may also accept donations of old magazines

Recycling is also taking hold in the publishing industry. The Green Press Initiative works with publishers of books and newspapers to improve environmental practices, and many of them are making progress. The current industry average use of post-consumer waste recycled paper is around 5 percent, although Random House has committed to using 30 percent recycled paper in its book production by 2010. Other publishers, such as Simon & Schuster, are beginning to set targets, too, and some, such as Hyperion, have adopted environmental practices, such as using soy-based ink.

If you decide to buy an e-reader, minimize its environmental impact by using it for as long as possible and recycling it at the end of its life.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series