Environmental / Human Impact of E-Readers, Books, Browsing

(Scott Eagle; saint of connectivity, holding a booklet as offering)

Friday I posted the following question on Facebook: “Has anyone studied the environmental impact of e-readers, in the context of knowing cell phones are full of all kinds of narsty things? It’d be awful to find out physical books are actually more environmentally friendly.”

The resulting discussion is archived below. This is by no means a systematic analysis, but given that participants like Tom Winstead work in industries where he has first-hand knowledge of the resources required to make certain technologies work, it’s pretty interesting.

When I joke/not-joke about how in 70 years physical books will be back in style because the Internet and electricity will be things of the past–or used only for essentials–people often don’t get the not-joke part. And maybe it is extreme to think about the future of civilization in those terms, but as the conversation we had on Facebook shows, there are serious issues concerning sustainability…of everything.

Todd Pollman at 12:00pm July 10
A quick look at Google – there are a few layman attempts at adding up the EI but nothing I can find professionally yet.

Tom Winstead at 12:04pm July 10
You’d have to analyze the manufacturing impact of the glass (and electronics associated with the display), the semiconductor content, the battery content (probably the worst), and the plastic. Assembly (everything would have to be RoHS compliant, but it would add some)…then add the packaging, paper/plastic and shipping…With books you just have to chop down a bunch of trees.

Erin Kennedy at 12:09pm July 10
Guess that just depends on how many books you have on your e-reader. :)

Minister Faust at 12:11pm July 10
On the more serious side: more than the environmental issue, I’d be concerned about the E-book’s use of coltan, a critical component in virtually every modern electronic gadget. If *Dune*’s melange needed any more parallels, this would be the latest. And the massive human rights cost is the ongoing international destabilisation of Democratic Republic of Congo in order to access the world’s greatest supply of coltan (among other metals), part of the third century of appalling foreign murder in that country (whose greatest peak, soon to be rivalled by the modern death-toll, was the late 19th century Belgian holocaust which claimed 8-10 million lives).

Erin Kennedy at 12:15pm July 10
Coltan is also what terminators are made out of, right?

Matt Bell at 12:21pm July 10
The backend is environmentally costly too–The server farms that run the internet now use the same amount of power as the entire country of Sweden, according to an article I read recently… So when we stop cutting down trees to make books, we’re still going to have to burn fuel to keep all our stuff running, connected, and filled with delicious content.

Edward Morris at 12:26pm July 10
Coltan comes from the Congo, among other places. The atrocities people commit over there to steal/black-market that stuff would be right at home in Ambergris.

Chuck Gannon at 12:28pm July 10
I think there’s almost no way readers could be comparatively green friendly. Conversely, depending on how you structure tree growth and harvesting (i.e.; that you have 20 years of crop-trees under planting at any time) that is a huge net positive in terms of carbon conversion and oxygen production. Better still if you go with green harvesting … Read Moretechniques driven by sustainable energy. The problem there is NOT technology, but expense (start up costs, at least). And then there’s chemical treatment of paper: same problem. Green means exist–but more cost (at first) is involved. So yea and go paper books. Which also don’t give a damn about EMPs, whether artificial or natural (CME). I love necessary new technology, and can accept that some of it is going to be grey, not green, because of irrefragable material requirements. That said, I don’t have a reader. Hmmmm: wonder why…

Erin Kennedy at 12:29pm July 10
If we could just make e-readers out of corn and hydrogen and burn pig poo to charge them, there would be no problem…..

Todd Pollman at 12:35pm July 10
Matt’s comment reminded me of how Google’s new server farms air conditioning requirements couldn’t be accommodated by CA’s powe grid–a problem that’s going to get worse in The Future ™ given e-delivery’s (another E.D.) rising prominence.

Jeff VanderMeer at 12:38pm July 10
Erin: Pig poo! OMG. I’ve got this sudden vision of Sony e-reader owners keeping a pig in the backyard and going out there to “fuel up” every few days.

Tom Winstead at 12:44pm July 10
Coltan isn’t the be-all-end-all evil content here, but it’s not good. Check the Wiki post: Manufacturing processes, transportation, all other materials, and end-of-life material disposal would far outweigh the damage of one mineral component.

Minister Faust at 1:22pm July 10
Hemp paper? And no, NOT for that….

Erin Kennedy at 1:27pm July 10
Jeff, I was thinking more like this.

Jeff VanderMeer at 1:30pm July 10
How great, though, if you could just roll up and smoke a bad book? Erin–checking link now. Georges T. Dodds at 1:53pm July 10
There was a law enacted recently in the US to limit the resale of old toys and books because of their possible lead content…enraging many librarians and used book dealers who would have to have books tested for their lead content– at a prohibitive cost — old books (particularly those with coloured illustrations) were mainly targeted — so some paper books might not be as innocuous as they seem, though you’d have to literally devour them to feel any ill effect…

John Kenny at 3:37pm July 10
I read recently that the impact of internet searches has an appalling impact on the environment. Ditto FB and other networking and blogging pages and BBC iPlayer, etc., etc. Seems we can’t move a toe without killing ourselves and the planet. Bummer.

Gary Gibson at 11:26pm July 10
As Tom Winstead briefly alluded, the transportation costs of shipping paper books has to be factored in as well: also their disposal when large amounts of them are pulped. That’s power and fuel to run the distribution centres and warehouses, the trucks that deliver to the bookshops, the power and fuel to run and light *them*, then ship the books away again when they’re unsold, etc, etc …

15 comments on “Environmental / Human Impact of E-Readers, Books, Browsing

  1. Oddly enough, earlier this week I was looking at the website of Arctic Paper who make the excellent Munken paper stock we use in Savoy’s books. Their site has detailed information about their environmental impact.


    Paper books may initially have a sizeable carbon (or whatever) footprint but once a book has been printed, if it’s good quality it can stick around for a century or more benefiting new readers and causing no harm at all. What kind of useful life is a Kindle supposed to have?

    The longevity question seems to me to be a crucial one. I own a couple of Victorian books that would have been printed in places with no electricity, probably using steam-driven presses. They still “work” perfectly and have probably out-lived the machines which created them. Manufacturers of e-readers are concerned far more with the hardware they’re selling than the content. If the content was games or video or music their concern would still be to make you buy the expensive hardware device, then buy a better model (having junked the first) and so on. No obsolescence, no “growth”. That’s something which has to change but try telling that to Sony, Amazon, Apple and co.

  2. Steve York says:

    Properly balancing the scales between paper books and ebooks is a complicated business. People have mentioned the shipping and warehousing of books. But how many book lovers have had books they haven’t moved at least once? Some of my books have followed me around for 40 years, and I’ve moved them cross country in both directions at least once, and maybe more, not to mention dozens of shorter moves.

    Then there’s the matter of housing them. Computers have to keep cool, but in most climates, paper books need a lot of climate control to survive too, heating and cooling. Even if you aren’t doing it for the book’s sake, most books are stored in living space that’s climate-controlled to some extent just as a matter of practice. If it’s living in heated or cooled space, it counts. Dry heated space must be serviced and maintained as well, and that should go into the energy equation as well.

    The other thing is that the numbers for paper books are pretty constant. Heating and cooling systems may get more efficient, but not drastically. Meanwhile, computers keep getting smaller and more efficient at a rapid rate. There are environmental problems in their construction, but there’s no reason to suppose that this situation can’t be improved as well.

    Anyway, the network/storage/bandwidth/dp needs of ebooks are a drop in the bucket compared to video, audio, and your basic porn. It’s like blaming those little smart-cars for all traffic congestion and the gas crunch.

  3. Ennis Drake says:

    I’m of the opinion that e-reading devices are little more than a market-competition with internet-ready cell phones, PSP’s, Gameboys, and the like. They have little to do with conservation and everything to do with the marketing of “gadgets”, and a demographic inclined toward the use of “gadgets”. i-Tweet-on-my-i-Phone. *cough*

    Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, useful to know the distinction.

  4. Ennis Drake says:

    BTB: I hate reading fiction on a screen. I much prefer something tangible. HOWEVER, if an e-version of a short story, or a novel, means that it is being read by a broader audience — particularly by the 18-25 demo — I’m all for it. Being read is the thing. Being read IS a competition with brainless media. And, in that vein, I hope to God we do see serious issues with the sustainability of everything in the very near future.

  5. Ennis Drake says:

    PS: I rolled up and smoked a bad book in high school. It was called The Bible. I stowed my weed in the hollowed-out remains. ; )

  6. One step further: what’s the environmental impact of providing health care to everyone? :/

  7. Swan says:

    Allo Jeff,

    Digressionary question: on the Omnivaoracious blog you state “Many thanks from Omnivoracious to China Mieville for guestblogging this week. His _The City & The City_ is an Amazon best book selection for June. The novel will also be available in a beautiful limited edition from Subterranean Press. This special signed edition will feature three different inks and will probably not be available for long . . . ”

    The Subterranean Press website does not indicate this and having just received my copy of the book, there does not seem to be three different inks — unless halftone/gray scale tones for headers are included. The link on the Omnivaoracious blog is for the Signed Limited Edition, but perhaps this should have been for the Signed Lettered Edition? Not really certain, but as I had visions of a different ink for each city as well as an overlap ink in my mind, I would be most appreciative if you could provide more information. Thank you.


  8. Neddal says:

    Ok, many people are worked up about ebooks. A reasonably cool bookstore in TO just closed and cited the “ebook revolution” as one of the reasons (along w/skyrocketing rent, but that’s a whole other thing – go to hell American Apparel and Starbucks). What I want to know is who reads the bloody things? In W. Ellis’ rant about them, he gave some pretty low numbers for actual sales of Kindle. Are the readers selling? Are the ebooks?

  9. jeff vandermeer says:

    I might’ve misinterpreted info from Subter.

  10. J. T. Glover says:

    The problem isn’t the e-books or the print: it’s the number of people on the planet who want books. Nothing I have yet read about e-books vs. print has convinced me of the sustainability of producing either on a mass scale. Getting caught up in one format vs. the other obscures the simple fact that culture comes at a price, especially when produced using industrial means.

    People confuse “print” with “sustainable” because, among other things, they get a warm fuzzy feeling when looking at their beautiful bookshelves (I do too). Codices would never have been sustainable at any point in history if produced at the scale we produce them now. One monk using materials for one codex is fine, but when the masses are literate, want to read, want books of their own, and a profit can be made from providing them books to read, damage is going to be done to the environment.

    This runs counter to the idea of publishing as a business, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it. What can be done to change the nature of the business of publishing such that it doesn’t lead to Kindles in landfills, rivers polluted by paper mill runoff, and exhaust from the vehicles carrying both to market?

  11. So, psychic internet links it is, then.

  12. Mary C says:

    Good lord! Can’t they just issue a warning that old books MIGHT contain lead paint so people won’t give them to their two-year-olds to play with?

  13. David H. says:

    “The backend is environmentally costly too–The server farms that run the internet now use the same amount of power as the entire country of Sweden, according to an article I read recently…”

    The solution is clear. We must get rid of Sweden to even out the power requirements.

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