Book or E-reader – That is the Question

A few years ago I had the great honour to write an environmental column for Müürileht– “an advocate of Estonian modern culture and contemporary thought currents, working for an open and diversity-supporting society.” One of the posts was about paper books vs. e-readers – a perfect fit for this little second-hand-loving blog.

Illustration by Stella Salumaa

In an increasingly environmentally conscious world, where better choices are constantly emerging, it is easy to give up many convenience products that harm the environment. Hardly anyone is emotionally attached to disposable coffee cups, plastic bags, or even cheap fast fashion. However, it becomes more complicated with things that are, in one way or another, part of your identity, such as hobbies and habits. Since reading is the main excuse for not attending social events, I feel a constant conflict between my love for the environment and my love for books.

Extinction in the digital world

When I lift my nose from a book on the tram and see my fellow passengers intensely hunched over and watching their phone screens, I always straighten my neck. In a world increasingly concentrated on digital devices, are printed books moving toward extinction like species diversity in our endlessly demanding food industry? Personally, I believe there is still time, but the arguments of e-reader users are hard to ignore. Considering that the latest Kindle can hold up to 3000 books, its environmental advantage over an equivalent stack of printed books is evident. However, as always, nothing is so black and white.

So, a few comparative facts. The production of one e-reader generates an estimated 168 kg of carbon dioxide, while for a book, the number depends on its size, but the consensus is that it is around 2.7 kg for most publications. In other words, reading 62 digital books offsets the carbon footprint of the e-reader. By the way, the same amount of books can be made from one tree. In terms of water usage, the e-reader’s footprint is offset with 40 read books – it takes 300 litres for an e-reader and 7.5 litres for a printed book.

However, as with other electronics, the main concern lies in the minerals used in e-readers, which are often mined in regions where human rights are questionable. The production of one e-reader requires 15 kg of minerals, including exotic metals like coltan, mainly mined in war-torn regions of Africa. The environmental impact also includes sand and gravel needed to create landfills for semiconductor production waste. In contrast, a book printed on recycled material has a mineral cost (mainly considering road cover materials) of only 150 grams. Additionally, many components in electronic devices are not made from renewable resources, unlike books, which use wood in their production.

Finally, if an unusable e-reader is not properly recycled, it may be illegally “repurposed.” This involves children and, in the process, people manually dismantling electronics in e-waste dumps in third-world countries, exposing themselves to toxic substances, polluting the environment, and compromising their health. In comparison, paper processing is a relatively harmless and resource-efficient process. Although methane is released when a book ends up in a landfill, making its destruction twice as polluting as its production.

The lifespan of written words

While numbers can be easily compared in terms of production, evaluating usage is much more complex. It is quite clear that reading a paper book in the dark next to a light bulb consumes more energy than reading on an energy-efficient e-reader screen. However, when delving deeper, questions arise about the energy required to store e-books on servers and digitally distribute them worldwide. How often does an e-reader need to be charged, and how long is its overall lifespan? If a book does not perish due to a flood or fire, it can, in principle, be passed on from hand to hand indefinitely. Unlike e-books, printed books don’t succumb to the familiar phenomenon in the digital world – the need for a new model. While the queues for the latest Kindle version are certainly not comparable to the frenzy over the newest iPhone, updates still attract many avid readers.

In favour of a paper book, there is also a higher likelihood that a purchased book will be read when it is a visible investment on one’s shelf. Considering my annual reading statistics, it would take me 60 years to read the 3000 books that can fit into a Kindle. Since people dislike empty spaces, a reader with such capacity would likely accumulate more books than one can actually read.

Back to the roots of a sharing society

Recently, the ‘new’ concept of a sharing society has been discussed in the context of cars, electric scooters, etc., although libraries, for example, have existed in some form for thousands of years. We grew up borrowing textbooks from school every year. The second-hand book business has also always had its place and brings joy to people like me, who take special pleasure in placing a finished book on the shelf. The Book Exchange page also makes a significant contribution to the local circular economy.

Looking at my home bookshelf, it turns out that I have acquired about a quarter of the books new, most of which I have read immediately. The rest are happy finds from used bookstores and Book Exchange. This is an acceptable balance for my conscience. Besides, after reading a freshly printed book, I always try to pass it on to a friend.

Reducing internal conflicts

There is probably no definitive answer to this question. The same rules as for other purchases should apply: consume as little as possible, thoughtfully, and without forgetting the true cost of things. When analyzing the ecological footprint, a reader-adapted version of “cost per wear,” which could be called “cost per read” for an e-reader, could be successfully applied.

No matter how you, as the end consumer, contribute, the most crucial role lies with publishers, who must be better at adapting to trends. They need to accept that book print runs will be smaller, use much more recycled materials, and find new solutions to remain relevant in a changing world. At the same time, e-reader manufacturers must ensure an environmentally friendly production process and take responsibility for the disposal of used devices.

When buying your new book from a brick-and-mortar store, please walk or use public transport. In the traffic of Tallinn, walking to the other end of the city for a book generates at least as much exhaust fumes as the production of the book itself.