Are eBooks Eco-Friendly? 9 Environmental Pros & Cons

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Stephanie Cole
With her Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE) from Oregon Tech, Steph is supremely well qualified to write on all aspects of sustainable living. She has already achieved a zero carbon footprint and her goal is to help as many other people as possible do the same. Her other hobbies include music, yoga, swimming and horror movies.
Stephanie Cole
Updated: March 15, 2024

Are you looking for ways to be more eco-friendly? If so, you may have considered switching to eBooks.

An e-reader is a digital device that can store hundreds of books in digital format. They take up less space, use zero paper, and have a far lower shipping overhead.

But are they really any better for the environment than traditional printed books?

Let's take a closer look at the pros and cons of eBooks to see if they're really worth your consideration.

E-Readers vs Paper Books: Which are More Environmentally Friendly?

e-readers vs print books pros and cons

When deciding whether or not an e-reader can be said to be environmentally friendly, we need to look at the merits of e-readers compared to printed books.

Is reading on an iPad or Kindle more eco-friendly than books, or is it the other way round?

Disadvantages of e-Books

There are several reasons why using e-readers can actually be bad for the environment.

  • E-readers are made from non-renewable materials, including their screen, battery, and plastic casing. Plastic is derived from fossil fuels, and will not biodegrade when it reaches the end of its life.
  • An e-reader is powered by a rechargeable lithium battery. The initial mineral extraction and mining, the manufacture of the battery, and the electricity required to keep it charged, all have a carbon footprint.
  • Overall, it is estimated that the manufacturing process of a Kindle uses 168 kilograms of carbon dioxide [cnet].
  • E-readers require an internet connection to download each new e-book. To do this they transmit digital files from a data center. Data centers require numerous servers, and communication infrastructure, all of which carry a significant carbon footprint.
  • At the end of their life, e-readers need to be recycled responsibly otherwise they will become a part of the electronic waste problem. Statistics show that millions of tonnes of e-waste are produced each year from discarded electronic devices.

These points mainly refer to a single e-reader, but we should also consider replacements.

I read a lot and I have a Kindle, which so far has lasted for over 10 years.

But several new versions have been released during that time, and many people tend to upgrade to the latest model, just as they do with smartphones. And some devices won't last as long as mine has.

Every time a new e-reader is bought, you have to factor in the environmental impact of its production all over again.

Disadvantages of Paper Books

Are hardback and paperback books bad for the environment? In general, it is considered that they are. We all know that paper comes from trees, but the water used in paper production, the ink, shipping, and waste from its disposal all needs to be considered.

  • Although paper is frequently recycled, some new trees are still used in the production process.
  • The paper industry uses energy and significant amounts of water to produce pulp. It is estimated that the publishing industry uses around 153 billion gallons of water every year, which has a huge impact on the environment.
  • Overall, it is estimated that the manufacturing process of a single printed book uses 7.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
  • Print books are heavy and bulky. Every time you buy a new print book, we need to consider the cost of shipping either to your local book store or direct to your door.
  • It is estimated that around a quarter of the space in our landfills is filled with paper! Although print books can (and should) be recycled, it often doesn't happen in practice.

Advantages of e-Books

E-readers negate several of the main disadvantages of printed books.

  • Lower cost and carbon footprint of shipping. Only needs to be physically shipped one time.
  • No trees or water are needed to produce an e-reader or e-book.
  • E-readers can last in excess of 10 years.
  • Higher cost to buy and replace, so less likely to be discarded carelessly.

Advantages of Paper Books

How environmentally friendly are print books, and do they have any advantages over an e-reader? In fact, there are a few advantages to consider.

  • Once purchased, they require no further electricity consumption.
  • Can be borrowed from friends or library, donated, or bought and sold second-hand.
  • Easily repaired if damaged.
  • Can be easily recycled when no longer usable.
  • They are biodegradable and compostable.

Conclusion: Are e-Readers Environmentally Friendly?

Your overall literary carbon footprint will depend on your reading habits and the number of books you buy new.

It's true that the production of an e-reader creates 22.4x as much co2 as that of a single printed book, and also has an ongoing environmental cost for recharging and the hosting and transmission of new ebooks.

However, it is reasonable to say that after a certain amount of use, the e-reader starts to have a lower overall environmental impact.

Printed books are more environmentally friendly if:

  • You read infrequently.
  • Most of the books you read come from the library or are bought second-hand.
  • You buy less than 23 new books per year.

An e-reader is more environmentally friendly if:

  • You do not read second-hand or borrowed books.
  • You buy 23 or more new books per year.

It seems obvious that e-readers are going to be the future, due to their convenience and lower cost. Indeed, many US colleges are now making their learning materials available on Kindle to save paper.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Paper Books Cause Deforestation?

Deforestation is a huge environmental issue that is directly linked to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. So it's no surprise that people are concerned about the environmental impact of the book publishing industries.

The good news is that the print industry is heavily regulated, and in many countries, laws require that paper products be made from recycled materials. In fact, the book industry is one of the largest consumers of recycled paper.

Around 10% of all global deforestation can be attributed to paper book production, which while still significant, is less than several other factors.

Do Books Waste Paper?

No, it's not fair to say that books waste paper. The fact that most books are often made from recycled paper is one point in their favor, and we also need to consider the value of books to our society as a whole. We've used them for centuries to help us learn after all!

Books can also be reused or repurposed in many different ways – for instance, you can donate them to a local library or school, or sell them at a used bookstore.

How do eBooks affect health?

There is some evidence that suggests that reading from electronic screens (such as those on eReaders) can cause eyestrain and other vision problems.

The glare from electronic screens can also be damaging to your eyes over time.

So if you do choose to read eBooks regularly, make sure to take breaks often and give your eyes a rest.

Are Books Biodegradable?

Yes, books are biodegradable--although the time it takes for a book to degrade depends on the environmental conditions.

In optimal conditions, paperback books will break down and decompose in less than 6 months. However, if conditions are less than ideal (such as in a landfill), it can take a lot longer for a book to decompose.

Hardback books also biodegrade, as the cover is made from cardboard. Find out more about cardboard biodegradation here.

What's the Most Eco-Friendly E-Reader?

The Asus Zenpad tablet and the Kobo e-reader are currently two of the most environmentally friendly e-reader models on the market.

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Stephanie Cole
Stephanie Cole
With her Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE) from Oregon Tech, Steph is supremely well qualified to write on all aspects of sustainable living. She has already achieved a zero carbon footprint and her goal is to help as many other people as possible do the same. Her other hobbies include music, yoga, swimming and horror movies. - As Seen On
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