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Printed Books vs. eBooks: Which is the More Sustainable Option?

Before deciding between printed or electronic books, it's important to understand the ecological impact of both production processes.


Are printed books sustainable?

Firstly, regarding printed books, when people think about their ecological footprint the vast majority are concerned about deforestation, which is normal because books are made of paper. This thought is not false as we are not talking about just a little bit of paper used. To be more specific, 32 million trees are used to produce books in the United States. To make it even clearer, to produce a traditional paper book 24 trees are cut down. Nonetheless, it’s not only the harm done to trees but also to water degradation, as papermaking is a water resource-intensive process, and a variety of chemicals are used in the pulping and bleaching process. Ink leaves a harmful footprint, too. The last one contains chemicals which lead to pollution of air, water, and soil. Not to mention glue and hardcover, which are also hazardous. Regarding glue, it includes toxic chemicals that can eventually be carcinogenic. Last but not least, books are packed in boxes so that they can be shipped via all forms of transportation, which most of the times release poisonous gases.  

While book printing innovation has come a long way from the hand-powered printing press, the massive machines today use a significant amount of energy, not to mention the resources used in the process. However, it’s important to note that many paper companies harvest wood sustainably from commercial tree or pulpwood plantations, not from natural forests.

picture with book

Are e-readers sustainable?

Secondly, as far as e-readers are concerned many factors may make us come in conclusion that electronic books are more eco-friendly. To begin with, an e-reader is an electronic device that its production requires the extraction of valuable metals and minerals from the earth. Manufacturing one e-reader needs about 33 pounds of minerals. Additionally, 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. At the end of their life, e-readers need to be recycled responsibly otherwise they will become a part of the electronic waste problem. However, little are the people who understand the electronic waste problem and know how to responsibly recycle them.

Image with ereader

What is better, printed books or electronic readers?

eReader vs Books

The truth is that there isn’t a clear answer to whether we would better use eBooks over books or the other way around. There are researches that support both sides. On one side, concerning the e-readers if we focused on the production and we were to produce one kilogram of both, we would end up seeing that we would rather use the e-reader, as it has a greater impact. However, in this case, we don’t include the factor that an e-reader needs energy to be charged multiple times and further, it occupies storage of data on servers, making it not so eco-friendly at the end. On the other side, a reader must go through at least 36 books (paperbacks that could be recycled) before evening out for an e-reader’s footprint. One study shows that even replacing around five 360-page hardback books each year with an e-reader could lower global warming potential. This rounds out to about nine smaller books each year.  Furthermore, according to an analysis from the Rochester Institute of Technology, if you read about 60 books per year, the e-reader may be the “eco-friendly” option. Another analysis in the New York Times shows that taking everything into account—including fossil fuels, water use, mineral consumption, and impact on global warming—an individual would have to read about 100 books to break even with the environmental impact of one e-reader.

How can we be eco-friendly while doing what we like?

In conclusion, no matter which book format you prefer, it’s crucial that you dispose of either reading device properly. Books accounted for 0.2% of total municipal solid waste generation in 2018 with 690,000 tons, while consumer electronic goods represented less than 1% at 2.7 million tons. So, if someone prefers using books it’s better that they either borrow them from a library or they buy and then give them to a library or a friend, so as to create a reusing cycle. As for e-readers, it’s recommended that when buying an eBook, it’s necessary not to replace it frequently so it doesn’t add up to the large pile of waste.


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