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Paperback or E-Reader: Which is Better for the Environment?

If you love books as much as I do, this might be a difficult read for you. I have stacks of books at home, and I’d chose a paper copy over my e-reader any day. But recently it occurred to me that paper books must have a huge environmental impact and that an e-reader might be a smarter choice. So I started looking into it, and here is what I’ve learned about it.

Book Stack

Facts & Figures

Disclaimer before we start with some key facts: Pinpointing exact numbers is challenging due to varying sources and the elusive nature of environmental data. The figures I’m sharing here are cross-verified from multiple sources.

  • In 2022, over 788.7 million copies of printed books were sold in the US.

  • Due to the pandemic, 2020 and 2021 were the biggest years for print book sales this decade.

  • In the US, the publishing sector consumes roughly 32 million trees each year for book production.

  • Globally, producing books emits over 40 million metric tons of C02 each year.

  • When it comes to pulp and paper, book publishing has been categorized as the third-largest industrial greenhouse emitter.

  • It requires about two glasses of water to produce one page of a book.

It’s important to note that this article does not serve as an in-depth analysis of the entire book industry. Rather, it focuses on the implications of paper books and explores whether transitioning to an e-reader is a necessary step.

Environmental Impact of a Printed Book

Let’s take a look at the individual stages:

🪵 The production of paper is a significant driver of deforestation.

💡 Processing wood into paper requires a lot of water, energy and chemicals.

💦 Printing books produces emissions and uses a lot of water.

💨 The production of paper books produces carbon emissions at every stage, from the manufacture of paper in the paper mills, to the printing and binding of the books, to the various activities in the publishing offices and at the retail, as well as the transport emissions at different stages of the process. The production of a paper book emits about 7.5kg of carbon dioxide.

🚗 Transportation: Books need to be transported to bookstores which adds to the emissions.

🗑️ Disposal of books: An incredible amount of books end up unread in landfills every year.

So to sum up, the production of paper books produces carbon emissions, uses natural resources, water and energy, and books often end up in landfills.

How Sustainable Are E-Readers?

Let’s take a look at the production of an e-reader and its emissions. The production of an e-reader requires mining of minerals and a lot of energy, their waste includes toxic components and they use energy for charging. The carbon footprint of a Kindle is around 168 kg CO2.

However, an e-reader consumes no paper, saves space and thus transportation and CO2 per kg in distribution, needs hardly light when reading, and can replace a large amount of books.

But the answer to the question of whether an e-reader is MORE sustainable than paper books is not that simple. After all, both productions require lot of energy and natural resources. The answer to the question depends on the number of books you read.

  • If you are a casual reader who only reads a limited number of books, an e-reader is less sustainable and you should stick with paper books. The environmental benefits of replacing printed books with digital books are not achieved.

  • If you are a devoted reader, an e-reader is definitely the greener option.

As a rule of thumb, you can say that an e-reader achieves the same environmental impact as printed books when you have read about 20–30 books on it.

Possible Solutions

Some of the best solutions are buying second-hand books, borrowing them from friends or libraries, and maximizing the use of existing books. Instead of buying a new book for a friends birthday, get them a used copy.

Audiobooks can also replace a paper book or two. I often reach for audio books for light summer readings, books I like to listen to while cooking, biking or walking the dog.

And if you are an avid reader, it might make sense to switch to an e-reader.

And for me? I’ve found that I do the worst. I have stacks of books AND an e-reader. And I didn’t read 20–30 books on it yet. But most of the books I read in 2022 were second hand. The majority have since been passed on to friends, neighbours and colleagues. But there’s definitely room for improvement.


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