The Back Story
“Hey David, Can you write me a paragraph or two relating to this statement made in the book, APE: “Battery life and environmental costs. Some tablets run for ten hours without recharging. Some Kindle devices can run for weeks. (The Electric Power Research Institute calculates that it costs $1.36 per year to charge an iPad.) I don’t know the total environmental impact of manufacturing, charging, and recycling tablets, but ebooks don’t require killing and shipping as many trees.“
David, from one geeky biologist to the other – It seems to me “killing trees” is the least harmful here… could you write me a short piece on that to set the record straight?
How could I say no?
How Green Are eReaders Versus Paper Printed Books?
Pulp and paper processing is a dirty business
At first glance e-readers like the Kindle or even the Ipad may appear to be a much greener option than continuing into the 21st century producing paper-based reading materials but the answer is not as straightforward as one might expect.
The pulp and paper industry has been cited for decades as a major producer of harmful air pollution, killer of lakes and rivers, and devastator of virgin forests. Much of what is said about the industry is absolutely correct. Harvesting trees to make paper is dirty and when you consider that use of paper has increased over 400% since the 60’s it’s clear that our appetite for paper can’t go on forever.
E-reader to the rescue…not!
It would appear that e-readers are a nice clean solution but that’s not entirely the case. Electronics manufacturing makes the pulp and paper industry look clean. Electronic devices are high in heavy metals and other toxins and require a significant amount of energy to manufacture, package, and distribute.
In short making an e-reader is a lot dirtier than making a newspaper and end of life electronics are another major concern. So much so, that most governments have taken steps to regulate the recycling of obsolete electronic devices. Powering active electronic devices also consumes resources which books just don’t use.
E-reader to the rescue…maybe
E-readers offer the potential for a greener world provided they are not prematurely discarded due to planned obsolescence. If it becomes obsolete in a year and end ups in the recycling stream then the green argument loses ground. On the other hand if you were to can carry a library of several hundred books on one tablet for several years then there is a saving in transportation costs each time you move house. If you use the same tablet for newspapers and magazines then there is a significant reduction in paper as well.
Don’t forget obsolescence and running costs
There are some worrying figures cited for tablets when it comes to carbon footprint. A typical tablet has a carbon footprint between 105 g and 130 g to produce. Estimates of how many books you’d need to read to offset this against the carbon footprint of conventional books vary widely from as low as 14 books to a high of 50.
With the typical e-reader user replacing their tablet every two years the switch from paper looks less environmentally friendly. Another concern is power consumption which may seem negligible but it has been suggested that a powered up e-reader requires 50 times as much energy produced from fossil fuels as it takes to read a conventional book under electric light.
Sometimes killing trees is actually the greenest thing you can do
Nobody likes to see natural habitats wiped from the face of the Earth. It’s completely understandable to assume that cutting trees is harmful for the environment but it’s not so straight forward. Recycling paper waste may ultimately have a negative environmental impact dis-incentivising producers from planting renewable forests and consuming valuable fossil fuels in the collection and conversion process.
Earth is cool, dead or alive trees keep it that way
First of all any wood product is a great carbon store. Living trees capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, liberate the oxygen and use the carbon molecules to grow and produce food during daylight hours. At night they revert to respiration and give off carbon dioxide using the carbon stored during the daytime to survive until sunrise. Despite their night time activities living trees are net oxygen producers and net carbon storers.
When a tree dies and is burned or allowed to decay all of the remaining carbon captured and stored during their lifetime is released back into the atmosphere increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and some would argue contributing to global warming. So a living tree or a dead tree which is prevented from decaying or burning is actually a great carbon store. In life it sucks in carbon from the air and holds onto it until it is burned or allowed to decay.
Even a really bad book has intrinsic value as a carbon store
Paper is principally made up of cellulose, the fibrous skeleton of plant cells which is almost entirely made of carbon captured by the living tree. As long as that book is not burned or allowed to decay then the carbon is trapped. Think of every book as billions of carbon atoms (several cubic meters of carbon dioxide gas) captured from the atmosphere by a living tree and prevented indefinitely from contributing to global warming.
To recycle or not to recycle that is the paradox
Now here’s the paradox. It’s true that if you incinerate all of the obsolete newspapers, magazines and books you are contributing immediately to global carbon emissions, which is probably bad. If you put all of that paper in a landfill then the carbon will still be released albeit at a much lower rate. So recycling must be the answer. WRONG!!! Transporting waste paper hundreds or even thousands of miles for processing isn’t environmentally friendly and reusing a potentially renewable resource like paper only reduces the incentive for producers to maintain a renewable source.
Given our current understanding of global warming capturing carbon is good and releasing it is not. If every book produced today is ultimately burned then the net effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide is zero. If every book produced today is retained indefinitely then the net effect is a reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide (global cooling).
The answer ultimately is probably something like this…
Print only what you actually need to print. If it is information you only need once like a newspaper then don’t print it. If it’s information that you will use repeatedly or better still pass from one generation to another then make a book and when that book becomes obsolete don’t do anything with it that would permit the carbon trapped in its pages to escape back into the atmosphere and equally important don’t do anything with it that would reduce the demand for new paper from a renewable source.
Think of that boring dusty old book not a nuisance destined for recycling but as a valuable carbon store, as several cubic meters of carbon dioxide gas, as another potential piece of fossil fuel that could go back underground. That’s right put that book back in the farthest deepest corner of an abandoned coal mine. Put that lump of carbon back in the hole where you got the coal to fire your furnace. Seal it up down there and forget about it for the next few million years and back up on the surface plant new trees.
Not a monoculture but a mixed forest of new carbon capturing oxygen liberating trees and when they have grown to a good size sit down under one and read you newspaper on an e-reader.
The conclusion, unless you intend to make good use an e-reader and continue to use it even after it’s been overtaken by more fashionable models then you may actually be contributing to global warming and deforestation.
Latest posts by David Green (see all)
- How Green Are eReaders Versus Paper Printed Books? - January 10, 2013