Are e-books an environmental choice?

Photo: Photo courtesy Amazon
What to know before you convert.

E-books are simple, in principle. They replace the familiar, texturally pleasing dead-tree kind of book with a device that most closely resembles a laptop with no keyboard. For years, the glossy, low-resolution display on most e-books has been one of the most significant barriers to their adoption, but a new display technology called e-ink has that problem pretty much licked.

The e-ink display of Amazon's latest entrant in the field, the Kindle 2, has a lot in common with paper: It's high-contrast, high-resolution and can be viewed with reflected light—just like a real book. And while e-books sales are only three percent of the global book market, e-book reading software is proliferating across other devices, from the iPhone to "ultraportable" computers.

The accelerating popularity of e-books has traditional publishers scrambling to make sure the devices don't do to their business what the web did to newspapers: In fact, this month, Indigo Books & Music cited the explosion of e-book readers as the primary motivation for their move into e-book publishing, and Amazon's Kindle library now includes 240,000 books, not to mention newspapers and magazines.

Whether or not the iPod-ization of book reading is now inevitable, change always begs the same question around these parts: Are e-books green?

The greenest way to read

The short answer is almost certainly yes but only if you're comparing e-books to new books.

As usual, the greenest way to go is reuse—buying used books online won’t do your favourite author any favours, but Mother Earth will smile on you for the estimated 3 kg of carbon emissions you've averted by not buying a new book. (Seventy percent of those emissions are released in the course of simply producing the paper it’s printed on.)

Several studies have attempted to break down the carbon footprint of reading on screen versus paper, but they've mostly focused on newspapers. (However, the fact that the majority of the emissions generated by print products derive from the paper they’re printed on makes newspapers and books more or less comparable.)

If you're reading on a computer and your power comes from the fossil fuel sources that we rely on in North America, you might just be better off reading that paper in print. One study estimated that after just 10 minutes of online reading, you're using more carbon to keep your computer on than is embodied in a print newspaper. (And that study was conducted in Sweden, a country that uses significantly lower carbon sources to produce its electricity.)

Others disagree, and come out in favor of e-reading—The Stranger's Dr. Science calculated that you'd have to read his paper for 11 hours a day online to equal the emissions of a single print copy.

E-book readers appear to have an edge over both print and reading on a computer, despite the energy required to manufacture them, mostly because the readers require very little power to operate. Electronic ink requires no back-lighting (which is the major drain on energy in most computer displays) and no electricity to display text—the display only draws power when you're turning pages. As a result, the Kindle 2 can go for days on a single charge.

What’s on the market

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that at this point, if you want to get into the e-book game, it's going to take some serious pocket change. Here are the leading e-ink-powered devices:

A better option may be simply downloading an e-book reader for your iPhone, ultraportable computer or netbook, if you have one. As some commentators have pointed out, for less than the price of most e-book readers you can get a full-fledged laptop. That said, using a device with an LCD screen is harder on the eyes and decidedly worse in terms of power consumption.

Of course, just about any new consumer electronic device you buy today contains “conflict” minerals mined in the Congo. On the other hand, paper production is pretty horrible, often jeopardizing virgin, old-growth forests. Nobody said being socially and environmentally conscious would be easy!