Weighing the environmental costs:
Buy an eReader, or a shelf of books?


This article is by Tom Rainey, a research fellow at the Queensland University of Technology. It was first published on The Conversation and is re-published here with permission.

analysis Bookshelves towering floor to ceiling filled with weighty tomes, or one book-sized device holding hundreds of “books” in electronic form: which one of these options for the voracious reader creates the least damaging environmental footprint?

There is no easy answer to the question, dependent as it is on personal environmental values and a reader’s reading habits. eReaders tend to be popular not only amongst voracious readers but also amongst occasional readers, who might previously have only owned a handful of books, complicating the question further. Regardless, more can be done to improve the environmental performance of both eReaders and paper publications.

The environmental consequences of pulp and paper manufacturing are well documented, even though the worst excesses are now corrected. But at least once the paper is made and the book published, there are no significant further negative impacts and the carbon is captured. There are higher environmental costs involved in manufacturing an eReader unit compared to a unit of paper, and there are on-going operational effects. However, one eReader can hold any number of eBooks, newspapers and magazines – which means that eReader users purchase fewer printed publications.

Trying to environmentally promote or denigrate – depending on your point of view – one form of reading over another is inevitably controversial, and perhaps futile. It is not just about numbers, such as tonnes of CO₂, raw materials and waste, but also about human behaviour and interpretation of the impacts. For example, is the logging of (mostly plantation) trees of greater environmental significance than the extraction of limited resources of rare earth metals? Is it more important to consider the greenhouse effect of CO₂ emissions rather than the health effects of air and water quality? These are just a few of the many environmental issues involved.

Much of the discussion about eReaders versus paper books has taken place with the best of intentions and indeed makes the most of available information. But the fact remains that reliable information at the required scale (both micro and macro) is not available, and probably never will be because of the cost of acquiring that information in light of how quickly it becomes redundant.

The few areas where commentators are in agreement are that:

  • eReaders will continue to increase their share of human reading needs regardless of environmental considerations – few people will make purchases based on environmental credentials;
  • Paper based reading will continue to meet a significant proportion of reading needs;
  • The more eBooks read on a single eReader, the greater the potential offset vs paper books. Depending on who you believe and what is being compared, that might be 20-100 paper books for equivalent CO2 emissions, or 40-70 paper books taking into account other impacts like fuel, water, minerals and human health. But that does not mean either has an impact that is good – both can improve; and
  • the lowest long term environmental impact remains sharing paper books, buying second hand books and borrowing books from a library (provided you catch public transport there). While a feel good option, this is an unlikely game changer.

Inevitably the eReader and paper books (both including newspapers and magazines) have their environmental pluses and minuses. These cover the cradle to grave elements: sourcing and extraction of raw material sources; processing materials and manufacturing products (including byproducts and disposal); distribution and retailing; end user uses (including maintenance and replacement); disposal; and transport at all stages.

Each of these elements has within it considerations of sustainability, energy consumption (source of fuel and production of emissions), health and environmental hazards, air and water pollution, and waste disposal. Then there are further individual human behaviour variables such as how the eReader or paper book is used, frequency of use, frequency of replacement (including planned obsolescence) and recycling/solid waste disposal.

For example, any environmental benefits arising from using an eReader and not buying paper books are likely to vanish if, like many of us, people give in to the temptation to update their reading device every year or two – long before it stops working.

A full Life Cycle Analysis of books versus eReaders might be desirable but is difficult and potentially misleading. These analyses rely on averages or a range of performance inputs and outputs. For the consumer it is difficult to evaluate all the issues let alone compare the different approaches to reading. The future will have both eReaders and paper publications. Rather than comparing one with the other for the “best” environmental credentials, it would be better to aim at improving the environmental performance of each.

We should require manufacturers to strive for the smallest possible footprint in a sustainable cradle-to-grave operating environment. If manufacturers transparently demonstrate they are meeting this objective, then consumers have the option to prefer their products. Responsible environmental behaviour by consumers is a further critical element in maintaining a sustainable reading environment. Nonetheless, sharing a book appears to be the best way to ensure you minimise the impact of your reading habits.

This article was written with the assistance of Dr Bruce Allender, Microscopist & Environmental Specialist at Covey Consulting. Comments welcome below.

Tom Rainey does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article. Image credit: Amazon.

The Conversation


  1. Ahhh- Life Cycle analysis and embodied energy…..that takes me back to Materials Science Uni days….

    I actually enjoyed those sorts of analyses- but as Tom has pointed out, they can be misleading working on averages etc.

    Bring on best environmental practice laws! Then we won’t need the anlayses :D

  2. One factor that never rears it’s head in the hype about eBooks is the amount of money that Apple and Amazon et al retain in perpetuity from the licencing of electronic media, be it music, eBooks, games & VOD etc. content. In the pre-digital age, you bought a book for one single outlay that would be valid for your whole lifetime and beyond.. i.e., you could trade your books in, sell them at a garage/car boot sale, share with your family & friends, donate them to Lifeline, leave on the bus seat for someone to pick up and read or just bequeath to them in your will to whoever you desired. Good luck trying to access iTunes, eBooks accounts etc. after a loved one or a friend has bequeathed their estate to you after they have died. The licencing rights expire upon death and are not transferable. The cost of that $50 beautifully bound hadcover tome you love does not seem that bad after all does it, when you know you can transfer ownership at will. With the price differential between paper-based books and eBooks being not that significant, Apple and amazon must be laughing all the way to the bank, knowing that who ever inherits your estate must pay them licencing fees all over again for access to the media.

      • Oh its true alright Renai. Those Ts&Cswe all sign without thinking contain some interesting clauses…

        That’s why I buy all my music. And buy books.

    • This is why we need a complete re-write of the copyright laws.

      The transfer of the right to use a work from the producer of the work to the user should not be allowed to be interfered with by any additional restrictions being imposed by a distributor.

  3. I spoke to a paper merchant on a similar subject not too long ago. His argument was that new paper created from sustainable sources is a great carbon sink, and with modern manufacturing practices it can have a positive net effect on the environment. Recycled white paper is not so good for the environment, mainly because of the bleaching issues when making it white (recycled brown cardboard is a different story, and can be good for the environment). eReaders aren’t so good either, because of the environmental cost to manufacture, and the fact that they require power to be used. However, there is the convenience factor in their favour.

    When I thought about it, it seemed to make a lot of sense to me.

  4. What a fascinating topic!

    I’ve been pondering whether having lots of paper books is just not going to be feasible in the kinds of living/working spaces that we’ll be living in. Already in a small apartment I have trouble finding space to put a bookshelf that is able to hold all of my books!

    In that case, an e-reader (probably one that will eventually double up as a phone or something) is just going to be a necessity for inner-city residents. Libraries? Who has time for that these days?

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