Printed books Vs. Digital books: Which is more sustainable?

Everyone reads daily. I’m reading the words that I’m typing up into the blog post on my laptop. You’re reading my blog post at this very moment perhaps on your phone, tablet or laptop. Today I wanted to focus on leisure reading as there are multiple ways to access literature in this digital age.

Personally, I absolutely love grabbing a nice tangible book in my hands and flipping through the paper to really get a stronger connection to what I’m reading. Sometimes when I’m traveling I can’t bring my books with me and so I download e-books to read on my phone or kindle. This got me wondering which type of reading is better for our planet? The obvious answer feels like it would be e-books right? Printed books use paper, which means they use trees (a valuable resource), therefore the more books we print means the more trees we lose. I started thinking beyond that argument and realized that it is very one dimensional.

There are various things that go behind the final product of both physical and digital books. For example both require a host to carry the content — for the physical books this can include hardcovers and soft covers, both of which use different materials. The digital books require electronics like kindles and phones, which also uses various materials different to physical books. With all this in mind including the emissions caused by transportation and distribution of these hosts I decided to research further into which option is truly more sustainable.

Similarities

  • Both emit toxic gases (like nitrogen and sulfur oxides) which cause respiratory problems. However, e-readers emit more of those gases than printed books.
  • Both digital books and printed books require transportation via truck, plane etc. Thus the emissions from transportation, storage and distribution is relatively the same.

Differences

PRINTED BOOKS

  • requires 2 gallons of water
  • recycled paper books use two-thirds of a pound of minerals
  • two kilowatt hours (recycled or not)

DIGITAL BOOKS

  • requires 79 gallons of water
  • extraction of 33 pounds of minerals
  • 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels (66 pounds of carbon dioxide)
  • the emissions created by a single e-reader are equal to roughly 100 books

Are you already using an e-reader?

Don’t fret. As previously stated “the emissions created by a single e-reader are equal to roughly 100 books”, therefore you can decrease on the emissions produced by reading more than a 100 books on your e-reader before purchasing a new one.

So which one is better? (My Opinion)

Personally, there are a lot of factors which play into whether or not one is a printed books fan or a digital books fan. Beyond environmental factors printed books will always have a special place in my heart. Sometimes when I don’t have access to books in my country I switch to reading on my iPad. Since I have already purchased the iPad and am not replacing it any time soon I think that my environmental impact balances out in that way. However, something to keep in mind would be how many books you read in a year. For example, I read about 15 books a year so I would have to wait for roughly 7 years just to break even with the emissions produced if I use an e-reader and then upgrade it.

In conclusion, taking all of this into consideration – even apart from environmental impact – you as an individual will have to analyse your own consumer and reading habits before making a decision whether or not you think printed or digital books are better.


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References

  • https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/04/04/opinion/04opchart.html
  • https://www.eomega.org/article/print-or-digital-it-all-has-environmental-impact
  • https://www.custommade.com/blog/e-readers-vs-print-books/
  • http://ecolibris.net/ebooks.asp

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Saran

Founder at Econaki
Hi! My name is Saran and I am the Founder of Econaki. My goal with the business is to provide in-depth information about the sustainability of popular products/services so that we can combat climate change amongst other problems.

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