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What Freelance Writers Need To Know About Ebook Readers & The Environment

ebook readersI’ve been under the impression that ebook readers are environmentally friendly. After all, my thinking ran, a printed book has a pretty big carbon footprint, although it turns out actually discovering how big is not as easy to find as it might be.

There is an academic paper called Carbon Footprint Assessment of a Paperback Book from Wiley’s Journal of Industrial Ecology. If I understood the abstract and the conclusion they aren’t sure because there are so many variables from paper, through ink and on to transportation.

I got started looking at all this because of an article in TreeHugger.com called Are eReaders Really Green? 

One of the more interesting statements there is Put in absolute terms, the number of books — regardless of format — produced and sold across the globe increases each year. ‘Regardless of format’ is key here – after all Amazon had sold something like three million Kindles by the end of last year according to some reports and as near as I can tell there’s no evidence the sale of ebook readers will slow down one whit.

TreeHugger quotes Apple as reporting Usage figures are an important element in the estimation of a book’s environmental impact. According to Apple, an iPad is responsible for 2.5 grams of CO2e per hour of use. A single print book, on the other hand, is responsible for “a net 8.85 pounds.” 

But that’s not the whole story apparently.

The conclusion I drew from reading the TreeHugger article and chasing its links is that the problem with ebook readers from the environmental side is their technology coupled with the fact that people tend to replace that sort of tech every two years or so. The same thing is true of our smart phones. TreeHugger links to an excellent and scary article about the real cost of our tech called The Price of the Paperless Revolution.

Of course, as many point out, checking books out from the library may be the most environmentally friendly although I wonder about transportation issues and carbon footprints of libraries, etc. etc. etc.

There’s no easy answer to any of this stuff. It helps a bit when we drive less, use fewer plastic bags, compost and use the library. But I believe that some sort of paradigm shift will have to happen world around if we are to deal effectively with climate change. I don’t pretend to know yet what that shift might be.

Meanwhile ebook readers aren’t going away. Writers will find their work appearing on them and on smart phones too.

Knowing, however, that replacing an ebook reader before I’ve used it three or four years, or a smart phone or my iPad or my desktop is better for the environment than giving into the notion that everything needs upgrading every five minutes, may be a tiny part of the shift that’s needed. It wouldn’t hurt either for us to start asking for tech appliances… heck any appliance to last longer than a couple of years.

Awareness has to be part of the answer I think.

What’s your take on ebook readers and environmental paradigm shifts?

Write well and often,



Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Andrew Maso

{ 27 comments… add one }
  • I like reading through an article that can make men and
    women think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!
    Arthur recently posted..ArthurMy Profile

  • jorgekafkazar

    There is a lot of waste in our society, so I do as much as I can personally to counter it with recycling, etc. I own a small car that gets up to 40 mpg, and I own a windfarm. I did my first alternative energy study in 1963. I’m up to speed on recycling, reusing, and conserving. Ebook readers are just one area where things aren’t quite as represented. There are, unfortunately, many other misconceptions about energy and conservation.

    [My degrees are in technical fields and include courses in physics, mathematics, radiation into gases, and astrophysics. I have over 1000 hours of recent study of global warming science.]

    (1A) Although there is general agreement that some global warming can occur, there is a broad spectrum of opinions on how much.
    (1B) There has been no significant global warming for 15 years, despite rising CO2 levels.
    (1C) Warming is generally beneficial, results in both greater crop abundance and fewer deaths in winter.
    (2) Atmospheric CO2 FOLLOWS temperature rise, instead of vice-versa.
    (3) Climate scientists have been caught fudging data and lying about the science, and have stonewallsd FOI requests for their full data and methodology on publicly funded studies. Why? Annual climatology grant money is well into billion dollar figures, now.
    (4) Climate scientists have been caught attempting to suppress dissenting papers and to sabotage publications that print them. Why? To maintain the false appearance of a meaningless consensus.

    Here’s a link to new evidence that a well-known global warming player has distorted major studies and then lied about it repeatedly: http://www.bishop-hill.net/blog/2012/5/9/the-yamal-deception.html

    So let’s stick to conservation and reusing/recycling, instead of “carbon footprints,” which are strictly political and serve no useful purpose.

    • Jorge, I’m glad you conserve and I’m impressed you have a wind farm. As far as your points 1-4, I’d need to see or find the sources. Ditto Bishop-Hill – interesting reading but I have no idea who they are.

      I’m also sure there have been some scientists who have fudged research data to get grants as you suggest.

      Sources I trust, and of course I could be wrong, like the Union Of Concerned Scientists, continue to say that climate change/global warming are at least in part driven by human activity. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/ I believe that. They also take on global warming/climate change deniers directly at http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/global_warming_contrarians/

      What I’ve never understood by the most fervent talk-show host type deniers is the accusation that global warming/climate change/human influence is a giant conspiracy of some sort. Limbaugh and Beck and Hedgecock all say one way or another that someone, presumably us horrid liberals, are benefiting from the conspiracy.

      But we can’t go wrong conserving, reusing and recycling and, I think, generally working so humanity can become a truly sustainable part of the whole on this planet. When I think of the Pacific Plastic Gyre or the mess drilling and refining oil has created in, oh Nigeria for example, but not the only one, or the real possibility my great grand kids will grow up in a world without salmon and elephants and tigers, I’m sure we can do better whatever we call it.

      And it’s that recognition that has me calling for a new dream, a new story, all the time knowing I don’t know what that story should be.

      Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term interbeing as a way of pointing to how everything is connected – the flower has within it the rain and the clouds. Big Bang theory would seem to back that up. Pavement, exploration of people, animals etc. unthinkingly in the name of progress or profit seems to ignore that connectedness more than not.

      Good to see you here, Jorge. I appreciate you.

      • jorgekafkazar

        Thanks for the nice reply, Anne. I think we’re in essential agreement that recycling & conservation are both wise and cost-effective, when done sensibly, and that climate scientists are not saints and can’t be totally relied on. And Rush Limbaugh is a boob. I don’t want to spoil the moment with a diatribe on how climate science has become corrupt, but there’s no “conspiracy” necessary. The meme is sustained by grant-seeking behavior, commonality of interests, politics, and tribalism, PLUS the pumping of huge amounts of money into “climate science” by governments, foundations, and quangos.

        The Union of Concerned Scientists is not a scientific organization. Most members are NOT scientists. No proof of a PhD or any degree at all is needed; you just pay your money and they send you a card and put you on their list to receive a steady stream of propaganda. One wag even got his dog added to their rolls.

        “Bishop Hill” is a British on-line journalist whose commenters are among the best of any GW site I’ve found. He covers the material well and is easily understood because of his non-technical approach. He has written “The Hockey Stick Illusion,” a detailed expose of the Michael Mann paper that served as the IPCC’s primary weapon for several years.

        Another excellent non-tech source (and an easy read) is Michael Crichton’s State of Fear.

        A more technical source of information is ICECAP. See their list of experts at http://icecap.us/index.php/go/experts Select their home page from the menu to see the latest posts.

        Slightly more technical is Dr. Roy Spencer. The link below shows no significant warming for about 15 years. There are other people who’ve shown the same thing. You can generate your own graph at woodfortrees.com, if you so desire.


        Dr. Spencer is a meteorologist, Principal Research Scientist at U of Alabama [Huntsville], former Sr Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. See his complete bio on his blog, if you’re interested. He’s a good guy; I’ve corresponded with him on one occasion and got a prompt and courteous reply.

        There’s a lot more I could add. I hope I’ve hit the high points of your concerns. Billions of dollars have already been wasted on global warming “research” that could have been spent on authentic problems of world hunger, disease*, and alternate energy R&D. Trillions of dollars will be thrown down a rat hole if cap and trade or carbon taxation is forced upon us.

        * over a million deaths from malaria alone in 2010.

        • Thanks back atcha Jorge… I’ll check out some of those links… and we are in agreement on the conserve and recycle.

  • I try to recycle as much as I can, and that includes going to the flea market when I need something and buying it used, and not buying things with a ton of packaging. But I’m not going to completely discount the idea of publishing via e-book. I want to get my work out there and if I have to do it that way, I will.

    That said, I still don’t have an e-reader or a smartphone. Why not? Well, I can’t afford a smartphone right now. And I’m still not sure I want to spend $200 on a tablet I can’t take into the pool with me. If I drop my paperback in the water, I can dry it out and it’s still good. There’s a financial component here too, as well as an environmental one. I can’t justify spending so much upgrading tech all the time.
    Elizabeth West recently posted..Star Wars Day and Other Nerd HolidaysMy Profile

  • Well, now I understand why there was a box with a tag on it “donate your cell phone” in the telecom company I used to work 🙂
    Ali | Writers Blog recently posted..The Most Amazing Present For A Writer That Keeps On GivingMy Profile

    • Yes, exactly Ali. And if it were me I would have written ‘donate your cell phone so we can recycle it’ or ‘keep your old phone out of landfills – drop it here and we’ll see its recycle.’

  • Funny isn’t it, we all see the same things from very different perspectives. Let me say from the outset – I love technology. But I love what I call “sensible technology” and to me, the only way an ebook reader has any advantage over a proper book (and this is purely from the users viewpoint) is that you can store a huge library in a very little space. Therefore, I do not have ebook reader – I read ebooks on my computer or laptop and I read proper books everywhere else.

    I have always believed that ebook readers (like all other modern communications/electronic equipment) is far from environmentally sound. My family is probably sick of the sound of my voice reciting the same things that Michael and Will have said above on this subject. The other thing we have to keep in mind (and as writers we know this from experience) is that ebooks don’t necessarily reduce the sales of printed books – so sometimes we are creating a double-whammy impact on the environment.

    I am an ardent recycler – we all have to be so, unless we want to end up living on a giant landfill site – but don’t forget the huge levels of energy expended in recycling these products. Recycling is all about eliminating physical waste and has very little positive impact on emissions pollution.

    Technology is here to stay – and overall, I couldn’t be more happy that it is so – we just need to be sensible consumers and ask ourselves: do I really need a desktop, a laptop, an iPad, an ebook reader, and an iPhone? Or can I get by happily with half as much kit?

    • Half as much kit is a good place to start a new story, Mike. I have an iPad instead of a TV – no clue what the real trade off is. And my home came with a smaller than average ‘fridge and it could be even smaller. Also much of what was built here was with recycled materials. That’s not why I rented this place, but it is one of the things I treasure.

      I’ve gotten four families to use the (unofficial) community compost bin and I’m pretty good at recycling too… I also suspect that we writers can have more influence on this new story than we realize. Wish I had a clear vision of how to proceed.

  • Unfortunately, the “Are eReaders Really Green?” link does not work in the above article. There’s a lesson there.

    Two things bear on the comparison of ebooks and real books: embedded energy and the infrastructure necessary to support ebooks.

    I have in my book collection several volumes that are over 200 years old. I have a Bible that was printed in 1743. These are perfectly useable books that have served generations of readers and still work as books. The embedded energy that it took to produce them is amortized over the lifespan of the books, making their carbon footprint minuscule, if even measurable. The 1743 Bible was produced with human energy, delivered by horse power, shipped from England to the United States by wind power and transported from Massachusetts to Ohio by horse and water power. All renewable energy sources. The volume that graces my library has almost no energy footprint.

    eBooks on the other hand will not last for 269 years, or 26. 2? They are produced with fossil fuel energy, made from exotic materials derived from oil, or mined from the Earth in locations that displace indigenous animals and people. They must be reclaimed and recycled after 2 to 5 years, lest their materials add to the toxics burden of our planet.

    Furthermore, ebooks are not books on their own right. One cannot read an ebook without downloading written material from the Internet, nor withut charging it on the electricity grid fueled by fossil energy. The Internet relies on a complex technocratic infrastructure that devours enormous rivers of energy and real rivers of cooling waters that keep gargantuan memory banks from melting down into pools of mixed toxic wastes. And these memory banks and assorted infrastructure must be mined from the earth, manufactured from oil, assembled using fossil fueled energy, transported using fossil fuel energy, dismantled, broken up and recycled in less than a decade… and replaced!

    There is no comparison.
    Michael A. Lewis recently posted..What I’ve Learned Since the Exxon ValdezMy Profile

    • Yikes – here’s the link http://www.treehugger.com/gadgets/are-e-readers-really-green.html – off to fix the article itself, thanks. Yes, there is a lesson there.

      Michael, what a lovely book collection you must have. I love my mental picture of your Bible as it moved from England to your shelf!

      So what, if anything are you suggesting… we not use tech? No, you don’t seem to be saying that exactly on your blogs – but that we need a new story. Amen… maybe we ought to start a blog about that? Or maybe I can make that work over at WhenGrandmotherSpeaks.com – who wants to join me in writing a new story?

  • Will Carpenter

    Interesting article, but the referenced article from the Virginia Quarterly Review failed to expound on the difficulty of an e-reader’s disposal. Doing so takes a writer “through the Looking Glass.”

    If the turn-over in e-readers is once in two years, today’s I-Pad may end up laying on the bottom of a stack of dead electronic equipment in two years. Rather than follow the proper procedure, these readers will be sent to city dumps, where the integrity of their cases will be breached by the weight of the refuse on top of and around them. The heavy metals within them will leach into the soil through rainwater, becoming trapped in the hydrologic cyle until their weight leaves them laying on the bed of an aquifer, river or ocean. They would eventually ended up there, but not so quickly nor in such a concentration, resulting in an anthropogenic poisoning of the environment.

    I’m being encouraged to write my next book as an eBook. As an e-book, it would make money, but because I’m aware of the environmental cost on both ends of an e-reader’s life, I find myself hesitant to publish in that format and find writing has become a moral quandary.

    I think I’ll go have some coffee and try to sort out this out. I also think the cat perched on my lap will leave when I do so; if he leaves a lingering smile behind when he departs, I’ll know I’m overthinking the whole thing.

  • Aha! I knew there was a reason I didn’t have one. 😉

    I’m not surprised. I ALWAYS recycle my hardware – computers, printers, cell phones. etc. And I recycle paper books for that matter by donating them various places.

    I love that you raised awareness of this. If we don’t, we’re going to be sitting on a lot of hardware.
    Cathy Miller recently posted..3 Business Blog Tips Stolen From Your May GardenMy Profile

    • I recycle or donate my tech stuff too… and I donate a lot of books too… except right now I’ve had a non-working keyboard in my car for months because the closest Goodwill quit taking tech and wants me to drive 20 miles in a direction I never to go donate. So it’s not always easy. But you know that.

  • Anne, this is fascinating! I haven’t gotten a dedicated ebook reader yet, not being a particularly early adopter of ANYTHING 🙂 But I want one. I never even thought that they might not be as green as I assumed.

  • It’s interesting, Anne. I was researching this a couple months back and realized that keeping an e-reader a bit longer or recycling it by passing it on to another family member is the only way to make it eco-friendly. I plan to do the same with my current phone when I eventually upgrade (I’ve had it for four years).
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..Freelance Writing Problem #2687: Clients Who (Think They) Know BetterMy Profile

    • Good for you and passing it along makes a whole lot of sense… I just did a search on where can i donate my cell phone and where can i donate my ipad and there are a ton of good places – perfect if you don’t have a family member to pass them along to. Great idea, Sharon.

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