Digitisation is possibly the biggest trend of the 21st century, with people across the world swapping physical goods for digital alternatives. One prominent example is a shift in our reading habits, with books beginning to lose ground to e-readers.
In the UK, the uptake of e-readers has grown tenfold in the last decade. In 2010, the number of people using an e-reader at least once a month was 1.8 million; in 2019, it is projected to be 18.1 million. That’s a phenomenal 1 in 4 people using an e-reader each month, not counting the multitudes who also use smart phones or computers to read digitally. In 2017, total book sales in the UK amounted to £3.7bn, with digital sales contributing just under 15% of that at £543m. That’s a considerable market share for what is still a relatively new technology. Research papers, magazines, comic books, legal documents and countless other media are moving online, so it’s not only books where this shift seems likely to become increasingly important.
While book-lovers will debate the relative merits of paper versus screen, another set of questions arises for environmentalists: is the environmental impact of an e-reader greater or less than that of books?
One of the main obvious requirements for the printed book industry is paper. The production of 1 metric tonne of paper requires around 17 trees, typically pulpwood grown for harvest. Each tree, therefore, produces an average of 59 kilos of paper; and with an average 400-page paperback weighing about 600 grams, one tree could produce just under 100 books.
We can therefore estimate that meeting the demand for the 190 million books sold in the UK in 2018 required around 1.9 million trees: a considerable amount of pulp-based fiction, equivalent to almost a year’s worth of the last Government’s target of planting 11 million new trees in the UK over five years.
As they grow, trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: a recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended planting a trillion trees to create a carbon sink large enough to help slow climate change. It’s difficult to give an accurate estimate of the exact amount of CO2 a tree can sequester from the atmosphere, but a decent estimate is around 20kg of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per tree, per year. Pulp trees are usually harvested at around 25 years of age, so they capture around half a tonne of CO2e each from during their lifetime.
Cutting down trees might, then, seem like a bad idea. However, a lot of the carbon captured by the tree will remain embedded in the paper that makes up your new book. This means that, theoretically, books can act as a miniature form of carbon capture and storage. The widespread implementation of sustainable forestry practice should mean that the trees that are cut down will be replaced by new ones, so the most obvious environmental impact of the traditional paperback is not as significant as it initially seems.
However, this rosy picture is somewhat sullied by the energy intensiveness of, and other environmental impacts from, paper production. According to a 2018 report, producing a tonne of paper results on average in more than half a tonne of CO2e – but the environmental performance of different companies varies considerably, with the lowest emitter responsible for less than half the average. Paper production is also responsible for air and water pollution: in the United States, about 5% of all industrial pollutant releases in 2015 came from the pulp and paper industry.
In addition, a book has to reach its reader. It must be transported to a customer’s bookshop or home, which requires the use of vehicles, albeit that these might be becoming progressively more efficient, or driven by cleaner fuels in future. Delivery emissions can be exacerbated by the growing trend in ‘next day delivery’, which limits the efficiency of deliveries because there may be more ‘free space’ in the vehicle, so the vehicle is less fully utilised.
Take your tablets…
If paper isn’t without problems, is the e-reader any better? Tablets and other electronic devices contain a huge array of materials: common materials such as plastics and glass, through to precious metals such as gold, and rare earth elements such as yttrium (used in LEDs) or neodymium (used in speakers). Some of these materials will have high levels of embedded CO2e as a result of the energy used in the course of their extraction, processing and transport, not to mention any other environmental damage such as habitat loss and pollution – so in itself, a tablet is far more resource intensive than a book.
Unlike a book, an e-reader consumes energy. Different devices have different battery capacities and energy usage. Conventional e-readers have much lower energy usage (around 0.375 watts per hour) than do tablets (around 2.5 watts per hour), making it the greener choice of the two. A tablet will have a much larger battery, but the e-reader will nevertheless generally last far longer on a single charge – so it may also be more convenient in use.
One area where digital reading clearly triumphs over the paper book is in transport emissions. Whilst delivering or collecting the e-reader when first purchased draws on some transport emissions, you can purchase a new e-book without leaving the comfort of your sofa, let alone your house, and without anyone having to come to your door to deliver it. While each new paper-based book comes with its own carbon footprint, each new e-book adds very little in the way of emissions, so the more you expand your library, the better the emissions performance of the e-reader seems to be.
The question, then, is how do the two ways of consuming literature square up? The e-book looks to have a bigger ‘initial’ carbon footprint, but as the number of paper books increases, so the fact that the e-reader’s footprint rises relatively slowly seems to give it an advantage in use. All sorts of factors affect the relative advantages of one or the other, but it probably comes down to how many books can be substituted by the e-reader. This could be expected to vary according to how bookish the e-reader’s owner is, but also, how well books are circulated (for example, through second hand shops), and so, how many times the physical book gets read. There might also be some impact relate to how quickly people read, and for how long people the e-reader survives before it gives up the ghost, or is discarded.
The number of books you need to read before the e-reader becomes the more environmentally friendly choice. This is far from easy to quantify, given the number of variables that must be taken into account. However, a recent study in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment concluded that adopting an e-reader would break even with paper books at 4.7 books per year, provided consumers read for less than 11 hours per day.
For the avid reader of new books, then, an e-reader might appear to be the greener choice.
However, a final advantage of the paper book is that you may be able to find the title you’re looking for in a second hand shop; and once you’ve finished with it, you can pass it on to someone else. When you buy an e-book, though, you’re likely to be limited in terms of who you can swap it with. So, for reasons to do with intellectual property, receiving an e-book may mean you’re the only one who reads it. If paper books are assumed to be reused multiple times, the breakeven point for e-books will be rather higher than might otherwise be calculated.
The impact that reading has on the environment depends on a large number of factors including the use of resources, transport and energy . How often you’re picking up a new (or second hand) novel, also plays a significant role: while an infrequent reader would see a higher environmental cost for reading digitally, for the more eager bookworms out there (though not too eager) switching to digital would be more likely to have an overall positive impact.
Featured image: janeb13, via Pixabay