# E-readers or paperback: Which is worse for the environment?

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LauraGTposted 5 years ago

I was recently singing the praises of e-readers, saying how much paper they were saving.  A friend looked at me and said, "You have got to be joking!" and explained how the amount of waste created by the development, distribution, and disposal of e-readers drawfed that of books.  What's your take?  Have you thought about this before?

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junksellerposted 5 years ago in reply to this

What your friend probably should have said is that they have a theory about the relative costs. There isn't conclusive evidence that one is better than the other, in part because it really isn't an easy thing to objectively analyze.

They do have a point, however. A large amount of energy and resources goes into the initial production of an e-reader. Much more than what goes into the production of a book. However, once you have the e-reader, the cost of reading a book on it is liekely less than the cost of producing a printed book, although there is still a cost from the energy consumption of the e-reader and the equipment which transfers the book.

What you would find, I suspect, is if you put numbers to the costs you might find that the initial e-reader has an equivalent cost of killing 20 trees, while the cost of reading a book on the e-reader cost 1/2 a tree and printing a book cost 1 tree. I don't know what these exact numbers are, the main point is simply to say that the upfront cost of the e-reader is higher than the print option while the sustained option is lower. What this means is that there will be a break-even point eventually.

So for example we could compare several scenarios. Reading 10 books, reading 40 books and reading 100 books.

10 books e-reader cost:: 20 (initial cost) + 5 (reading costs) = 25
10 books print books = 10

40 books e-reader: 20 + 20 = 40
40 print books = 40

100 books e-reader: 20 + 50 = 70
100 print books: 100

With these numbers, 40 books is the break-even point. Less than that  and it is better to read print books, but more than that and the e-reader is the better option.

I have no idea if these numbers are right. However, I suspect that the relationship I laid out is correct and that there is a break-even point, so for someone who reads a lot of books, I think the e-reader is the better option. If someone only ends up reading a few, maybe not.

In general we aren't very good about electronics. Many are intentionally built to be essentially obsolescent in a few years and we pretty much have no program at all in place to reclaim and recycle these devices. Improving on both of those issues would greatly reduce the environmental impact of electronic devices.

One place I think e-readers make a lot of sense is schools. The school could send all books and written materials through the reader and as an institution could develop a responsible life-cycle management program. For someone who just wants the latest and coolest device so they can look cool at the beach and only actually reads a few books it would probably be better if they stuck to print books. Or better yet, their local library or used book store.

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wildernessposted 5 years ago in reply to this

To a point you are correct, but determining "equivalent" cost is looking at apples and oranges.  For instance, the paper in a book is a renewable resource, virtually nothing in an e-reader is.  An e-reader will have a few recyclable parts (although we don't recycle them), while a paper book is completely recyclable.

It is only when discussing either monetary or energy costs that an equivalence can be made, and there it becomes obvious that there will be a break even point, just as you say.  I doubt that monetary costs of an e-reader will ever fall to that of a book (unless you buy only cheap to free ebooks) but the energy used will.  It takes a lot of energy to produce that tablet, but it takes some to make paper and books and more to transport them.  Eventually it will equal out.

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Express10posted 5 years ago in reply to this

I couldn't have said it better.

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junksellerposted 5 years ago in reply to this

I completely agree about the difficulty of equivalent costs. That's largely why I said an objective analysis is really difficult. I have seen some people try and convert them to CO2 emissions, which seems like a reasonable approach.

I guess my main point is that from an environmental perspective there are comparatively good uses of e-readers and bad uses. Reading lots of books good. No books bad. Keeping the reader for a long time good. buying the newest model every 6 months bad. Responsible disposal good. Irresponsible bad. Etc.

That's why I think schools using them would make sense. With textbooks and all the papers a student gets they can end up with a 10" stack of paper per class per semester. Over 4 years, that's a lot of paper. And from a life-cycle management perspective an institution would be able to maintain a 'fleet' of e-readers, upgrade them, repair them, and properly dispose of them in a way that is hard for individuals to do.

Also, I'm not entirely sure that the two are that different in terms of recycling. While books are recyclable, it has been my experience that very few books are ever recycled. The glue and the binding make it very difficult. In that sense e-readers probably aren't that different. Much of their content (glass, plastics, and metals) is capable of being recycled, it is just difficult to do so.

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Alexander Markposted 5 years ago in reply to this

This is a fascinating debate, it's causing me to rethink my opinion about how wasteful an ebook reader is. It seems logical to conclude that breaking down either the paper book or the ereader are involved processes. The only thing that paper books have going for them (from an environmentally conscious point of view) is that trees can be regrown at zero cost (okay, okay, someone has to plant them) whereas the material for an ereader comes from diverse sources that are not replenishable, but also may be more costly to extract and produce. However, what allows the paper books to really get ahead is the fact that it can last for 50 to a hundred years and uses zero energy, while and ereader will always need a trickle of energy to keep working. That can easily be solved by putting solar cells and movement power generators on board.

I prefer the pocket size paperbacks, but the ereader makes more sense than books because it takes up less space, can outlast a book by the fact it can contain so many (ultimately cheaper than a paperback) and the information is transferable. Without an accurate comparison of cost, then logically the ereader is the best choice.

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junksellerposted 5 years ago in reply to this

I used to work at a campus recycling center. We collected books, but it was always a bit of a mystery what happened to them. Theoretically, from what I heard, reclaiming the paper involved individually placing the books in a machine which would sheer off the binding. This would obviously be very labor intensive and to be honest I suspect it would cost more to process the books than the resulting paper was worth. Recycling companies are businesses. They may care about the environment, they still have to make money. The general opinion seemed to be that maybe they processed books on occasion (if they had nothing to do for some reason), but for the most part the books just ended up being sent to the dump. It seems like I have also heard about books simply being chopped up whole. While doing so is easier, you end up with a low-quality fiber product that probably can not be made into new white paper.

The same is true for much of our ewaste. It actually contains a lot of valuable material it is just very labor-intensive to break it down into useful piles. That's why a lot of our ewaste is either landfilled or sent to other countries with low labor costs and lax environmental regulations. We'd be better off designing electronics to last longer and/or be much easier to break down into recyclable material piles. As it is, style and coolness are huge selling points for our electronics so I doubt either of those things will happen.

This perhaps goes a little bit off topic, but I also used to work at a thrift store. Many people probably don't know this, but the clothing which thrifts are unable to sell gets bundled up and sold as rags. I've heard estimates from other thrift stores that this amounts to half of the clothing that they receive. I wouldn't be surprised, though , if our store was up around 60-70%. These rags are shipped to other countries (African countries being the most common) for processing. Some are sold as clothes, some end up being chopped up into cleaning rags, and some get processed into fibers. Like the books and ewaste, it is another example of where labor costs for processing are just too high in America to be economically feasible. I don't know what my point is, I just think it is interesting.

Either way I think the argument is somewhat moot. E-readers aren't going to go away. Someone should come up with a more environmentally friendly product. It seems like there would be some interest in that. I still think regular books have a place. Public libraries are still a great option, in my opinion. Like you said, they can sit around for 100 years. That gives a lot of opportunities to be read.

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Alexander Markposted 5 years ago in reply to this

You're right, they are not going away. Part of the problem is that we live in a throw-away society, and things are purposely not made to last. If we did make things to last and as owners tried to make them last, I don't think we would be discussing the wastefulness of technology at all. From what you wrote, recycling isn't all that great, more energy is used than saved - at least at a certain point. That actually makes sense to me. When I think of recycling bottles or plastic, I think of all the labor that goes into separating materials and also the leftover foodstuff and garbage that gets inadvertently thrown in and I scratch my head and wonder if we are using more energy to recycle than to process new materials.

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junksellerposted 5 years ago in reply to this

Well, just in terms of energy use or resource consumption, I think recycling is always better. It is only with labor costs that recycling becomes the poorer option. Either way, I think the important point is that recycling isn't magic. There isn't anything free about it. Sometimes it seems like people think that as long as they recycle no harm is done. That just isn't true.

Ultimately our problem is our consumptive pattern. Imagine our consumption as an engine that uses resources as fuel. We have to some extent switched from using natural resources to using recycled resources as fuel, which while better, does nothing to alter the high consumptive pattern of the engine. That pattern is one in which we process large amounts of material at high speeds and low costs (essentially we build lots of poor quality junk that we don't need and doesn't last). What we probably need is an engine (a consumptive pattern) that moves low amounts of material slowly at high costs (stuff we need built to last and of high quality). If our high consumptive engine with natural resources uses 100 units of energy per unit of time, than maybe the high consumptive engine using recyclables uses 80 units/time. What I think we probably need is the low consumptive engine which uses recycling but only uses something like 30 units/time (because it gets more value from the resources consumed). I don't know if that makes any sense. Or if it is right in any way. Just a theory.

If you want a real eye-opener, you should go check out a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). That's what they call the plants that process recyclables. Probably can't go by yourself, but with a group, I think it is somewhat common for them to give tours. I went to one once and thought it was fascinating.

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Alexander Markposted 5 years ago in reply to this

I cut through the hassle of driving to a MRF by watching the animated video on youtube. It's pretty impressive. I wonder what the ratio of workers to money earned from recycled materials is. It doesn't seem as labor intensive as I first thought, I just remember going to a recycling facility and watching people painstakingly sort through the different materials and even then more separation was needed. The MRF solves that problem well.

I agree that the energy to time ratio is what we need to be shooting for, while not making our lives more difficult. I don't believe it is necessary to get rid of computers and washing machines in order to live in a more ecologically sound way, but some activists would have us wearing dirty clothes to save water as an example. Same with cars. Although the Prius is a technological advancement, it is a tin can as far as safety is concerned (I drive one at work and the construction feels very flimsy to me), and when parked, the engine will kick in and the whole thing will rock forward as if it wants to go into gear and take off. I think they probably could have gained the same fuel mileage using a 3 cylinder turbo powered diesel engine by cutting back on materials as they have on the Prius - so the hybrid thing is more of a gimmick. I would rather drive a VW Polo that gets 65-70 MPG! (But of course is not sold in the US).

To me, recycling as done in the MRF facility is a reasonable solution. We need more of that.

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Keith Hamposted 5 years ago

I believe in the classic book. Why? Even if it doesn't save the trees, and a book gets destroyed - it doesn't need to be wasted! Remember, most books are paper (unless they are that heavy duty ink crud) and a busted up book can easily become compost or broke down and recycled for new paper.

Cool right? Books made from books; there is something poetic about that.

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Pearldiverposted 5 years ago

I believe that one side effect of the development of e-readers has been: - That now the most exclusive 'Long Drop' toilets in the back and beyond of Europe no longer provide books for their clients...

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ptosisposted 5 years ago

I guess it's depends on the recycling. A brand new anything has manufacturing costs that is just not in CO^2, for example plastic bottles - it's the use of water not oil, (plastic is oil). Plastics are hard to recycle than glass, or metal because can't mix 'em up. there are several kinds and the one used most is not recyclable. If it doesn't have a triangle with a number in it then it's BPA, a compound that mimics estrogen and is banned in baby bottles in other countries (but not in the USA) some theorize that this is one factor in early puberty in girls as young as 5 and low Testosterone level in men who live in 'first world countries.

I only found this out because they say to replace your emergency water bottle every 6 months which I thought was odd, since they have cisterns in the desert for hundreds of years and that water does not go 'bad'.

Too bad that even beer cans have a inner lining of BPA - the only way to go is glass like in the good old days of yesteryear.

You do  better for the environment over all if you buy things used as in a thrift store, a used car, a used house. Books are made from partial recycled paper. But a really fine book that is meant to be handed down is probably acid-free and all new wood pulp.

The declaration of Independence is written on hemp paper. Legalizing hemp would be very environmental over all since the stuff  grows like a weed and doesn't take 40 years to harvest! Anybody who has seen clear-cut on a mountain knows what I mean.

I heard in the 1920's it was the logging companies that pushed for pot to be illegal because back then it was mainly used for paper - not smoking to get high.

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Alexander Markposted 5 years ago in reply to this

Wow, early puberty because of more crap in our products? That explains much actually. I like your common sense approach here - just use glass and why not use a product like hemp which is quickly renewable? I'll tell you I'm doing my part. My favorite beer, Pauli Girl, comes in a glass bottle and I refuse to drink it any other way! Seriously though, I wish they would put all liquids in glass bottles and create a system of automatic return. I'm talking about changing our culture so that next generations grow up living a way of life that eschews throw-away products, uses regular shopping bags to go to the store (your own made of canvas or cloth or whatever) and refills their milk and juice using their own bottles.

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junksellerposted 5 years ago in reply to this

Glass is a great product. It is relatively easy to recycle and can be recycled forever. Be even better I think if we simply sterilized containers rather than crushing, melting and reforming them.

Banning one of the most useful fibers on the planet (hemp) is astoundingly stupid.

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