Kindle vs. Books: the Environmentalist’s choice

KindleSummertime and reading go hand-in-hand, but is that book-in-hand, or e-reader-in-hand? The top priority of any environmentalist bookworm is how much of an effect their reading medium of choice has on the planet, but are we clear yet about which is really better for the earth?

To make a book, you’ll need a tree. Penguin says that deforestation accounts for a quarter of carbon emissions worldwide, and so-called “dead-tree publishing” can only be adding to the problem. According to David Reay, author of Methane and Climate Change, each book in the UK is responsible for 3kg of CO2, with bigger books carrying greater responsibility. The educational textbooks we used as students, and which now make useful doorstops, steps, or bottom-of-the-pile cupboard clutter, could be harbouring up to 10.2 kg of carbon guilt for you to deal with. It’s safe to say, then, that e-readers are the way to go.

Not quite. One New York Times study discovered that to make one e-reader you will need:

  • Minerals – one of which is coltan, a metallic ore possibly from the Congo, production of which has fuelled the war – (33 lbs)
  • Fossil fuels (100 kilowatt hours)
  • Water (299 litres)

All of which combines to create a 30 kg carbon chunk of shame to hang about your neck. Books take barely a pinch of these resources, and no coltan either. Reading from paper also avoids the nitrogen and sulphur oxides linked to chronic respiratory diseases.

With ten times the carbon responsibility of a paper book, a Kindle needs to be used to read ten books if it’s to make itself the better environmental option. That shouldn’t be too hard if you keep one Kindle for a few years, but books, as anyone who has checked the publishing date of a musty old novel will know, last a very long time. Kindles, on the other hand, are updated regularly, and the cast-offs added to the growing piles of e-waste clogging up the planet.

The energy needed to read from paper is lesser in the day, but greater at night. Flip that around for a Kindle, and the problem only becomes more complicated. And we only become more confused.


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