Monday, May 24, 2010

Are e-books really more environmentally friendly?

I haven't quite caught on to the e-book revolution, yet. I have read a couple of e-books on my computer (sometimes printing out the pages to take home with me), but haven't succumbed into buying a Kindle or iPad etc yet. Part of this may be that I think I spend too much time in front of a screen as it is.

One thing that has always amused me, both in terms of when some marketers talk about e-books, and when PR people for print newspapers/magazines etc explain that they've gone totally online - is the 'we're going green' or 'being more environmentally friendly'. And many people seem to completely buy into this, without question. Perhaps forgetting that anything with a screen takes power to run, power to upload the information, and plenty of not-very-environmentally-friendly components to use. Amongst other things. I can understand the costs reasons for newspapers to go online, but when they try to justify it by saying they're 'doing it for the environment', well, that's just marketing bullsh!t. Paper isn't the enemy (and in fact is good for the environment as it is often grown from renewable and recyclable material - purpose-grown pine plantations etc - which during their lifespan actually suck up a fair bit of carbon too, incidentally).

Not that I'm against e-books - because one of the annoying things about publishing is that it can be hard to acccess some great books and authors, depending on where you are based - so something that allows a wider range of people to access a wider range of books, and perhaps encourage more people to read, well, that can't be a bad thing.

But I don't think I'll ever completely give up on paper - either for books, or magazines etc.

There was an interesting article in Business Day here in New Zealand this morning about the 'environmentally friendly e-books' debate, sparked by giant bookstore Whitcoulls' move to make up to 2 million e-books available later this week (the first big e-book move of its kind down this way). You can read the full article here.

Interestingly, as is often the case in such 'scientific' debates where you can have 'experts' on either side, people need to use a bit of critical thinking, and look at the wider, big picture - rather than just the narrow question a particular study focused on. The whole 'lies, damned lies, and statistics' thing really boils down to the fact it matters just as much what question was asked, than what result was given. Early in the Business Day article, it is noted that: "A study by United States research and media firm Cleantech Group found carbon emissions from electronic books were far lower than from traditional book publishing."

Well of course, most people would say. And it is 'of course', if you're just thinking about the environmental impact of transporting hard copy books around the planet, as opposed to transporting them over the Internet etc, perhaps. But what about the production of the (e)book? What about the energy people use when they are actually reading either option? What about the energy and components used for the Internet transfer?

A few paragraphs down, is the comment, "A New York Times "life-cycle assessment" of books and e-readers found traditional books were by far the greener option. One e-reader required the extraction of 15kg of minerals and 265 litres of water to produce its batteries and printed circuit boards, it said, while a book used 0.3kg of minerals and only 7.5 litres of water. Manufacturing an e-reader consumed 100 kilowatt hours of electricity and generated 30kg of carbon dioxide, while a book consumed two kilowatt hours and produced 100 times fewer greenhouse gases."


Lately it seems that 'going green' can sometimes be used more as marketing hype than reality - not just in terms of books, but with several other things. It's something that always fascinates me - the (mis)perceptions we can hold as a wider society. The things we assume are true, and don't question. We live in an information age, but I don't necessarily think the average person is more informed. There is more information out there (with the Internet etc), but often it is just repetitive, or press-release based. Doing research now (compared to say 10 or 15 years ago) less involved finding information, as finding good information (sifting through all the information for insights, gems, and nuggets, amidst the dross).
Critical thinking is key - being able to analyse, sift, weigh, etc.

Thoughts? Comments?


  1. Craig - I agree completely that issues that aren't "black and white" (and this is one of them) do need to be critically analyzed. It's important for us to be wise consumers of information before we make up our minds on things, including our feelings about E-books. Thanks for laying out this issue.

  2. As an e-book only publisher who has been into this game for the environmental reasons, I have to add some things that were not mentioned.
    For example, there is an awful lot of land used to house these books but there is also a lot of pulping that goes on that is not environmentally sound. There will also be a time when our power sources are more environmentally friendly.
    But land use, highway and air traffic to move books is a huge burden on the infrastructure here in the States. I could go on further about this if anyone is interested in continuing this discussion.
    Thanks though for making it a topic in NZ as well.
    Deborah Emin, publisher
    Sullivan Street Press, Inc.

  3. Very good points Deborah - as I said, these discussions require critical thinking, and a look at the wider issues. Many of the news stories about such things focus on a soundbite or headline, which is picked up 'on the wires' and repeated ad nauseum without question.

    It's interesting to talk about and debate such issues.

  4. Kiwicraig,

    First, the closest I've come to e-reading is downloading and printing out short stories from the web. I find it difficult to concentrate and comprehend lengthy material from a flat screen. So, I have yet to read a novel on a screen.

    Two questions:

    I can read a book just about anywhere. Is this true of a text on kindle or its equivalent?

    Second: I have before me a print book and a kindle or equivalent. Both contain the same novel.

    I read the book: what is the environmental impact of simply reading the book?

    I read the kindle: what is the environmental impact of simply reading the e-book?

  5. I could claim I have also ´gone green´.
    First, I am green with envy because English books are so much cheaper than Danish ones.

    Second, I rarely buy new books so the trees have been cut down already ;)

    [Don´t tell all my author friends, though, because I presume they want to get a living too]

  6. Vanda: oh, I could buy new books - less than one per month within my budget - or I can buy several used and write reviews which hopefully help my readers select the best of crime fiction.

  7. I agree Craig that everything we see and hear needs to be discussed and debated. I thought this was a good article in the NY Times last year on the subject

    I do think we need to look at the whole life cycle for each kind of publishing - from where the resources come from to build/print to what resources are used while in use to how the things are disposed of before we make informed decisions and in the end I suspect we'll end up with a workable mix. I'd have killed for an e-reader when I was studying instead of lugging all those expensive text books around - and the damned things go out of date so quickly that they end up becoming rubbish pretty quickly. But for my fiction I'm still happy curling up in bed on a cold night with a paperback :)