Are E-Readers Greener than Books?

e-readerCurrently the top selling electronic devices are e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Sony Reader, and also the Apple iPad, which runs the iBooks application, a free e-book reader program and gateway to Apple's iBookstore. The question is: are e-readers greener than books?

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The answer is yes, if you buy and read lots of books, but no if you read less frequently or use your public library.

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E-readers are electronic devices with LCD screens between five and nine inches that are designed for reading digital books, magazines, and other electronic documents. They largely use e-ink technology to display content. They've been around since 2004, but have really caught on only within the last couple of years. There are dozens of them on the market, but only four of them have significant marketshare.

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According to, Kindle has around 48% marketshare, Nook has about 18%, Sony Reader has just under 16%, and all other readers account for 17%. Wikipedia has a good long list of all of them. According to a new study by ChangeWave, the Apple iPad has 32% marketshare. It has doubled its share of the e-reader market since August 2010 and is now only 15 percentage points behind the market leader Kindle. Amazon, by the way, is already planning to counter the iPad with Kindle's secret sibling, the Amazon Android Tablet.

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Total e-reader ownership in the United States is around 5.9 million. It's not yet totally clear about how nonprofits and libraries will be using them, but as we buy equipment for our offices, staff, and possibly for the communities we serve, e-readers are coming more into play.

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People started really wondering how green these new devices are and in 2009 the San Francisco research firm, Cleantech Group, did a whitepaper entitled The Environmental Impact of Amazon's Kindle. This study finds that they, in fact, are greener than conventional books. Key findings are:

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The U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention wastewater that was produced or its massive carbon footprint.

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On average, the carbon emitted in the lifecycle of a Kindle is fully offset after the first year of use. Any additional years of use result in net carbon savings, equivalent to an average of 168 kg of CO2 per year (the emissions produced in the manufacture and distribution of 22.5 books).

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Purchasing three e-books per month for four years produces roughly 168 kilograms of CO2 throughout the Kindle's lifecycle, compared to the estimated 1,074 kilograms of CO2 produced by the same number of printed books.

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Then just recently Sierra Club's Greenhome website came out with a piece entitled: E-Readers vs. Old Fashioned Books — Which Is Greener?

The piece reflects the views of Sierra Club's Mr. Green, Bob Schildgen. I used to commute on the bus with him and he's an amazing guy in his willingness to field any (I mean any!) enviro question. He weighed in on this one this past August in his Paper or Pixels? piece.

Using a sort of back-of-the-envelope life cycle analysis, he says that "unless you're a fast and furious reader, the energy required to manufacture and then dispose of an e-reader is probably greater than what's needed to make a traditional book. If you're reading 40 or more books per year on your e-reader, that would be the right choice. But if you use it only occasionally, probably better to stick to a regular book."

The most sustainable way to read, however, is to go to the good old-fashioned public library and read to your heart's content. Library books are read by dozens of people over their lifetime. "And once they are finally too dog-eared and beaten up to grace library shelves, they can be easily recycled since they are generally all paper."

I do have to mention that e-books and e-readers are also an important area for libraries. A number of libraries now offer e-books that patrons can download. Libraries usually use an online service like that distributes e-books and other digital content in such a way that digital materials time out after their due date. According to Public Libraries Magazine lending e-books is fraught with difficulties because each type of e-reader and store have their own e-reader format and digital rights management (DRM) restrictions that make it very difficult to read a library digital book on e-readers like the Kindle.


Additional TechSoup Resources on E-Readers


Ed's Note:

This article was originally published on the TechSoup blog, 11 Jan 2011. TechSoup is a nonprofit which provides other nonprofits and libraries with technology that empowers them to fulfill their missions and serve their communities. For more details on TechSoup, visit or click here to view original article.

Visit to share your thoughts on usage of e-readers for personal use as well as for nonprofits and libraries. Are today's gadgets just tomorrow's e-waste? Does Bermuda have any mitigating factors that make e-readers better for us? Let us know what you think.

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