eBooks – Are They Better Than Paper?

Reduce, reuse, recycle. With things like music, where you listen to songs again and again, it is obvious that not shipping around plastic disks, packaging, wrappers and more lowers the footprint of your purchase. Buying digital wins every time.

In the case of books vs. eReaders, the argument is a little more mixed. If you were already going to buy a tablet device, and simply add reading to your use of the device – the equation is easy – each book you buy digitally vs. in paper form is a dramatic reduction in carbon and environmental footprint.

On the other hand, if you buy a dedicated eReader, such as a Kindle, or only use your tablet for reading, the calculation is a little more complex. Estimates on books give them a carbon footprint of about 7.5kg, whereas an iPad 2 is around 105kg and a Kindle is estimated at around 168kg. So, if you expect to consume 20 books digitally over the life of the device, the environment wins.

In my case, I’ve got over 40 digital books on my iPad so far, including Kindle books, iBooks, various children’s books and more. I’ve also got about 15 magazines that I’ve downloaded for trips I’ve taken. If anything, the eReading device has prompted me to increase my reading, which doesn’t factor into the calculation.

But these calculations don’t take into consideration two other habits. The first – lending, dramatically reduces the per-reader carbon footprint of a book. It is also a very social activity, something that encourages reading. Amazon has added lending capabilities to the Kindle, which is great, but it is limited as well.

The second are libraries – books are read so many times that the per-book carbon footprint ends up dramatically lower. Of course, you’ve got to get to and from the library, but if you walk, instead of driving, that is minimal. Some of the eReaders have built up good relationships with libraries as well, such as the Sony eReaders and Kobo in Canada.

Another great thing about eReaders is the massive collection of free or cheap public domain works that you would have paid for in the past if you were buying a book. Tarzan, Frankenstein, Jane Austen and more are all available for free download. We recently bought a cheap repackaging of the entire Frank Baum Wizard of Oz series for 99 cents, after being unable to find it in physical form after years of casual browsing.

Regardless of your choice for eBooks or Paper, consider the three R’s:

Reduce – the amount of physical books you buy by using libraries or an eReader
Reuse – share the physical books you buy with friends and family, donate them when you’re done
Recycle – the step of last resort when it comes to books.