To put it mildly, e-reading has exploded in the last few years, going from a mere 3 percent of all book sales in the United States, to 42 percent leading into 2012. With technology moving at a faster pace than book publishers probably anticipated, print books are quickly turning into the new newspaper, dwindling in total sales and struggling to stay afloat as an attractive alternative to the sleek and shiny devices offered by companies like Amazon and Apple.
But at the core of this new medium for reading is the lingering question of how “green” this switch from print to digital reading actually is. While the best option for green reading will always be to buy used books or books made using recycled paper, the masses are left to decide for themselves whether the transition to e-reading is actually worth it for the planet. Solutions like e-Ink have surfaced in recent years, a technology which mimics the reflective nature of on-paper ink with low-cost, low-power (0.1 watts of power) consumption of electricity, but doubts remain in play about the sustainability of this technology and its prevalence among devices that are actually popular.
Breaking it down, there are four primary reasons why e-reading has come into question as an environmentally friendly solution to purchasing books:
- E-readers emit carbon over a long period of time. For the average book, its carbon footprint lies in the production of its paper, amounting to 8.5 pounds of carbon emissions in its lifetime. By comparison, an e-book amounts to 2.5 grams of carbon emissions per hour of use – a number that is essentially limitless, depending on its use. While the latter still may look far less detrimental on the surface, one must take into consideration not only how long it takes to read an average book – roughly 250 words per minute for the average adult — but how that translates into total emissions released during the time spent reading that book on something like a Kindle or iPad. The typical adult reader spends just over 27 hours per year reading, meaning an e-reader would subject the environment to an estimated four times as many carbon emissions in a year’s time compared to buying what would be the equivalent of about six books in the span of a year.
- Users are likely to replace devices. New devices come and go in households every two years, as companies introduce new models of products and consumer culture continues to gravitate toward the indulgence of tech trends. That indicates a rapid pass-along spread of an “outdated” device, further increasing emissions. In other cases, these devices are replaced as a result of being broken, which ushers the next point into the spotlight.
- Devices are often disposed of improperly. E-waste continues to be a problem for the ecosystem as disposal remains largely unregulated and unnoticed by the general population. A total of 4.6 million tons of e-readers, computers, phones and tablets stockpile in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which inevitably pollutes the environment with toxic chemicals used in the production of such electronics. Even with e-Ink devices – which are more commonly being used on store shelves to display pricing – questions are being raised about whether and how store managers are recycling these new tools.
- Manufacturing is becoming increasingly complex. The more complex the device, the more mineral-based components drawn from around the world are used to make the device. Beyond that, as e-readers develop, they take on more and more multimedia features, revving up the amount of carbon emissions let into the environment as Web browsers, video features, and video games are implemented into devices, giving added incentive for users to spend more time using the device.
Certainly, time will tell whether e-reading is actually an eco-friendly, new age form of reading. In the meantime, however, it can only be hoped that technology giants will continue to evolve technology to cater toward the needs of the planet, employing the use of advancing e-Ink solutions and setting up effective programs for recycling the never-ending supply of new gadgets thrown onto the market.
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Melissa Hall loves everything about online marketing. She is currently working at www.clickinks.com as a marketing associate. Follow Clickinks on Twitter at @Click_inks