Electronic Readers and Their Inefficiency at Greening the Publishing Industry


We live in a disposable culture. As soon as we purchase a new phone, television, or computer we become envious of the newly released “updated” version. Additionally, each person within a household can often be found to have their own, personal electronic devises. This means multiple devices of the same function within an individual household. The attitude towards electronic readers is no different. It’s a very expensive and considerably stressful, lifestyle. With the current rate of disposal of electronic readers and tablets, in addition to the continually high dependency on physical books, the once perceivably “greener” method of reading via electronic readers can no longer be considered the more environmentally practical option.

Picture from E-Readers and Tablets: Are They Really Greener? Read more at http://livinggreenmag.com/2012/02/29/green-business/e-readers-and-tablets-are-they-really-greener/#lKMDjPQq8gWTsFup.99
Picture from E-Readers and Tablets: Are They Really Greener?


The publishing industry has long been noted for its wasteful production habits. In 2008 an estimated 125 million went into the production of books and newspapers. This clearing of trees, in addition to the subsequent waste water produced leads to a considerably large carbon footprint. In 2009 United States publishing companies faced a number of goals by the Book Industry Environmental Council to create a greener, more environmentally friendly industry. The hope was for a 20% decrease in publishing carbon footprint by 2020 and an 80% decrease by 2050. The electronic reader was the industry’s answer to their environmental problem, at least where consumers were involved.

Since the introduction of the Sony ereader in 2006 and the Amazon Kindle in 2007, popularity of these electronic readers has continued to grow. By 2010 sales already reached an estimated total of thirteen million .  These original electronic readers were designed to reflect light like a print book would. Additionally, they often were only able to complete their intended task: downloading and reading books, newspapers, and magazines. With few unnecessary additives to drain the battery, these older versions could last with out a charge for weeks at a time. As these devices evolved, their design altered to combat the growing popularity of tablets. These newer electronic readers are backlit and support tasks beyond simple reading, such Internet and various applications. While, in theory, this new tablet-like design would allow consumers to consolidate devices, based off our culture’s desire for each new and better device for an individual purpose, this is often not the case. Additionally, these new functions cause a quicker battery drain and more electrical drain in charging.


Nick Moran creates a very understandable study in his The Millions article .   He “calculates the carbon footprint of the average American reading an average number of average novels at an average speed both in print and on an iPad.” Upon first glance, it would seem reading a years worth of printed books is responsible for more emissions than a years worth of electronic books. And this may be true, to an extent.  When comparing the study’s determined average books an adult reads in a year, 6.5 for a total average of 27.95 hours a year, electronic books undisputedly come out the greener option. However, these electronic books are worthless without the device capable of displaying them. Once the emissions created in produced in the manufacturing of each reading device are calculated, a whole new picture comes to light.

Because the data was more readily available, Moran looked at the iPad for the purposes of his study. Because a book is a self-contained unit, the emissions calculated for reading are the same as for the actual production of the book. However, Moran approximates a year of reading by use of an electronic reader accounts for five times more emissions than the same amount of printed books. With its production and continual need for recharging, these machines appear to such energy from the moment they start down the assembly line. But consumers insist, there must be some level at which the carbon footprint evens out and electronic readers become more environmentally practical than the printed book. Through this study, Moran “determined that it takes five years (32.5 books) of steady eBook consumption (on the same device) to match the ecological footprint of reading the same number of print books the old fashioned way.” The magic number, it seems, is five.

This seems simple enough: use an electronic reader to read approximately 33 books on the same device over a five-year span. Unfortunately, consumers often seem to find difficulty in this sticking with the same old boring device for five years when a new and improved one is released every time they turn around. It appears two years is all the average consumer can take consecutively using the same device. Ted Genoways remarks “the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced.” By replacing a devices biannually, the amount of books read needed to make the emissions produced level in comparison to printed books increases exponentially. In fact, Genoway theorizes that “The nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books—not used or rare editions, 250 million new books—each year just to come out footprint-neutral.” This high volume of books needed to offset the turnover of electronic readers present of problem when faced with the estimation that “combined sales of all books in America… amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year.” Additionally troubling are the results of a 2012 UK survey, which reports after receiving the electronic reader as a holiday gift “More than a fifth of those who received a Kindle said they have not used it.” This survey shows that emissions are not only being wasted to produce electronic readers that are not being used enough to offset the carbon foot print, but that some of these emissions are put into devices that are never even used. If a device is not use, it can never offset its carbon footprint through quantity of books read.

Is It Working?

While a comparison between electronic readers and physical books is an important study to consider in order to be an informed consumer, we must not forget these electronic readers were created with the intent to significantly reduce the publishing industries carbon footprint. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves: Is it working? Are these electronic readers, when utilized correctly, helping the publishing industry reach their goals set forth by the Book Industry Environmental Council? With the continually growing popularity of electronic readers on top of consumers’ desires to own the latest model, the publishing industry must at least be approaching their goal of lessening dependency on paper books.  With all these electronic readers sold there must be a notable decrease in the amount of physical books produced and sold.


As it turns out, these electronic readers have not yet helped in the overall green initiative of the publishing industry. According to a survey conducted by Kathryn Nickuhr and Lee Rainie, even though electronic book consumption is on the rise consumers are choosing physical books as much as ever.  Adults who report reading electronic books has risen from 23% in 2012 to 28% in 2013, but 70% of adults still read physical copies of books.  This high percentage of physical book readers appears to be caused in part by consumers use of multiple mediums. Though approximately “50% of Americans now have a dedicated handheld device—either a tablet computer like an iPad, or an electronic reader such as a Kindle or Nook—for reading e-content,”  just 4% of survey respondents reported to relying solely on electronic devices for their reading purposes while few respondents who prefer physical books report reading through any additional formats.   And so it seems, “though e-books are rising in popularity, print remains the foundation of American’s reading habits.”

So did it work?  Have electronic readers allowed the publishing industry to slowly work towards goals of lowering their carbon footprint?  It would seem, in fact, that the growing production of electronic readers on top of the steady production of physical books has lead the publishing industry to produce more emissions and in turn a larger carbon footprint.

Picture from E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps
Picture from E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps

Tips for a Greener Electronic Reader

            Though the current rate of disposal makes for a very environmentally unfriendly electronic reader, simply discarding these devices as a hole would leave an even larger unnecessary carbon footprint. Therefore, it is up to the owners of these electronic readers to determine the “greenness” of their device.   For those who still choose to purchase an electronic reader, or those who wish to make the most of the device they have already purchased, there are ways to use them to their greenest:

  1.  Commit to a reading medium. As mentioned thoroughly throughout this post the dependency of an electronic readers “greenness” is on the quantity of books it is used for. Continuing to buy both electronic and print books does not offset the environmental problems caused by production of either.
  2. Turn of devices not in use. Many electronics come with power setting modes. When adjusted accordingly these can be a great help at extending the battery life.
  3. Charge until full. Leaving devices plugged in all day or over night can cause a vampire power drain once the device has been charged to its fullest. And rumor has it over charging these batteries causes them to fade faster. By charging your device during a time you know you will be able to unplug it when it’s full you save energy and, possibly, your battery.
  4. Consolidate devices. Along turn over problem of these devices is the actual amount of devices a person may have. A tablet separate from an electronic reader that is different from a laptop and entirely separate from a cell phone. However, these devices are becoming more and more alike with each new generation. While this similarity in technology can be frustrating during purchase, it allows for the consolidation of products by consumers. Many of these devices, such as laptops and smart phone, allow for compatible applications to enjoy electronic books on. By buying fewer gadgets for a similar purpose less need to be made and charged.
  5. Share. Along with multiple devices by a single person, it seems multiple members of a household may have their own personal devices. By sharing an individual device an electronic reader can move closer to leveling out its carbon footprint. Multiple users means more books read and more use of the device as a whole.
  6. Resell. Consumers caught in the two year life cycle may often find fault in a device that still have years of life left in it. While many components of these electronic readers might be recyclable, they are often not dealt with properly. Additionally, there are quite a few components that are not only unrecyclable, but harmful to dispose of. By selling a device to a new user the lifespan may be extended. In a similar manner to sharing within a household, reselling allows for multiple readers to one device. A characteristic which helps offset the productions carbon footprint.
  7. Recycle. When the electronic reader’s life has truly and fully come to an end, it is important to make sure the device is disposed of properly. As mentioned earlier, not all components of these electronic readers are recyclable. Some companies, such as Kobo and even Amazon offer recycling programs for various electronic reading devices.
Picture from Amazon Kindles 'go unused' after Christmas
Picture from Amazon Kindles ‘go unused’ after Christmas


            While these electronic readers house potential for a greener publishing industry, their lack of total books read and consumer determined life expectancy create more emissions than they prevent in production of printed books. Allison Dean put it best when she explained “to answer the initial question of whether or not e-readers and tablets are really greener than traditional books, the answer is no.  Although they will save trees, a renewable resource, they won’t reduce carbon emissions.” Additionally, the production of electronic readers simply adds to the carbon footprint of the publishing industry; a foot print that remains level in production of physical books. As long as the publishing industry continues to produce large quantities of both new electronic readers and physical books they can have no hopes of decreasing their carbon footprint.

However, throughout this on going debate of the creation of new print books versus the production of electronic readers there is a third option that is often disregarded: the library. Libraries allow for a large quantity of users to experience one individual printed book over a long period of time. These factors offset the estimated carbon footprint discussed earlier of a newly printed book read by an individual consumer. Additionally, to keep up with developing technologies, there are even some libraries that offer to loan out electronic readers. This, again, allows the device to be used for a large quantity of readers for a great deal of books over an extended period of time. Electronic readers loaned out through libraries, therefor, has the potential to meet the criteria for a device to be considered more environmentally friendly.

So our answer is not in one method of reading over another, but the utilization of a public facility. As Richard Maxwell, Ph. D and Toby Miller, Ph. D explain in their comparison, “Don’t Be Mislead about Paper Versus Electron Books,” “If we focus our attention on public libraries, debates about electronic versus paper distribution are transformed. These technologies become mere tools to support a model that is a proven facilitator of reading, thinking, research, conversation, and social mobility.”

However, since this post’s main purpose is to discuss whether the printed book or electronic reader is the more environmentally friendly option, I suppose I should fully commit to a side (if it hasn’t been apparent already). For me, personally, until companies develop an electronic reader that is fully waterproof and intended to live a substantially long life, I’ll stick to printed books.

Picture from The Awkward Yeti Comics
Picture from The Awkward Yeti Comics


Sources and Further Reading:










One Comment Add yours

  1. As an illustrator im not fond of these electronic reader there is a boost to an artist seen a physical book. But i get the convenience of them. I do not agree with the marketing of them as a replacement for the traditional book at least books dont get upgraded to the latest i-book or some such.

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