How green is my ebook?

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Today is World Environment Day 2014, a good time to ask: which is the ‘greener’ reading option – a printed book or an e-version? Has the movement towards e-content shifted the environmental burden from print to electronic, and from the library to the content providers.

The rapid rise of ebooks and e-readers has been phenomenal.

Ebook sales have risen from 10 million in 2008, to 457 million in 2012, and despite slower growth in 2013, account for 20 per cent of all book sales.[1] CILIP estimated that academic ebooks will account for 18 per cent of the global textbook market by 2013, up from 3.4 per cent in 2011.[2] 

This expansion has been mirrored by sales of e-readers. Kindle sales are estimated to have increased from 3.6 million in 2011 to almost 12 million in 2013, whilst Apple have reported even more spectacular sales for iPads, with a likely 200 million sold since their introduction in 2010.[3]

Ebooks can provide library users with 24 hour, remote access to content, in a format they appear to be increasingly comfortable with, whilst also potentially offering financial savings to libraries. But what impact is this growth, with its associated benefits, having on the environment, and does it compare favourably with printed books? 

Sharing books is green

Several studies have been undertaken to assess the environmental impact of the printed book. Confusingly, all differ in their findings.

According to Cleantech, the amount of Co2 generated by each book is 7.46 kg;[4] according to Eco Libris, it’s 4.14 kg Co2.[5] Whilst higher estimates also exist, studies conducted in Europe tend to be much lower 2.1 kg Co2[6] and 0.6kg Co2 per book).[7]

This is most probably due to smaller transportation distances, as well as differences in paper production and printing, and therefore likely to be more representative of the UK market. However, according to Chowdhury,[8] the environmental impact of the printed book is greater for libraries because ‘library storage of books... requires a considerable amount of energy because a constant temperature and humidity condition has to be maintained throughout the year’, although he does acknowledge that this is an area which requires further investigation. 

Yet many libraries keep books shelved in reading rooms, which require a similar level of heating as their users, which begs the question why this extra carbon burden should be applied exclusively to library books. Most studies have based their figures on books purchased for individual ownership, which is not the case for libraries.

Therefore it can reasonably be argued that the carbon footprint of a library book reduces every time it is read by a different person. This is illustrated by Borggren’s assertion that the environmental impact of physical books ‘can be significantly decreased by sharing books with others’.[9]

The true cost of paper

In the US alone, 30 million trees are felled each year for books and the use of virgin paper accounts for nearly two thirds of the book industry’s total carbon emissions.[10]

In 2009, the US book industry committed to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) by 20 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. Using recycled paper requires 20 to 30 per cent less energy and water, and causes less air and water pollution. By 2010, the use of recycled paper increased from 5 per cent in 2004 to 24 per cent, and the use of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) paper increased from 5 per cent in 2002 to 16 per cent.[11]

Whilst encouraging, much progress is required before the publishing industry can rest on their carbon reduced laurels, especially as this is self-regulating and by no means industry wide. Only half of all publishers have an environmental policy and in 2010, the Rainforest Action Network reported a majority of books they tested contained paper linked to rainforest destruction in Indonesia.[12]

Ebooks – many variables

The environmental impact of ebooks is even more difficult to gauge. This is not surprising, given the enormous scope for variability, including user behaviour, type of e-reader, power source, issues of obsolescence, recycling, printing etc.

Whilst Apple publishes carbon footprint figures for its devices (the manufacture of an iPad produces 130 kg Co2, an iPad2 105 kg Co2), the refusal of Amazon to disclose such data for the Kindle merely -contributes to this lack of clarity.

Amidst this uncertainty, it is interesting to note that there exists a general assumption that ebooks are by their very nature greener, due no doubt to there being something more tangible about trees being chopped down to produce printed books, compared with the somewhat ethereal ebook.

In 2003, Kozac compared a student purchasing 40 textbooks with 40 ebooks (using a Gemstar e-reader) and concluded ebooks caused less of an environmental burden.[13] In 2009, Cleantech compared printed books with the Kindle, concluding that the Kindle became environmentally beneficial after the first year of ownership.[14] However, before ebook users had much opportunity to use their devices with an environmentally clear conscience, subsequent reports began to sway the argument back in favour of the physical book. 

Enroth found web-based ebooks to be 10-30 times more Co2 polluting than a printed textbook.[15] In 2010, Goleman and Norris reported in the New York Times that the fossil fuels, water and minerals used to produce an e-reader equalled roughly 40-50 printed books, and its impact on global warming equalled 100 books.[16]

For Genoways, this presents a major environmental problem, as the average e-reader is replaced every two years, making it unlikely to reach carbon neutrality.[17] Moran claims it takes five years of use with the same e-reader before it matches the carbon footprint of printed books.[18] Yet upgrading leads to short life-spans and outdated devices are often discarded inappropriately.

For many commentators, the manufacture of tablets and e-readers is equally problematic, using precious materials dangerously mined in unstable and war-torn parts of the world, often resulting in further instability and even rainforest destruction. Moran also dismisses the notion that the multi-function use of devices, such as the iPad, leads to a reduction in its ebook contribution to carbon emissions, as he argues this merely invites prolonged usage, leading to increased environmental damage.

Not so innocent internet

As ebooks are also accessed via desktop computers, what effect does this have on their environmental burden?

Chowdhury argues that green ICT will enable libraries to replace books with digital content for the benefit of the environment,[19] albeit without providing any comparable figures to justify this claim. Indeed, there is little evidence to date to suggest ICT can deliver such environmental improvements.

A 2013 Wolper report argues that the movement towards e-content has simply shifted the environmental burden from print to electronic, and from the library to the content providers.[20] According to Jisc, the UK academic community produces 500,000 tonnes of Co2 per year, from 1.5 million computers and 250,000 printers (creating a culture of printing, often for single use, and discarded on the same day). Jisc recommends moving away from energy intensive local data-centres, in order for ICT to make environmental improvements.[21]

However, a NY Times exposé in 2012 blew the lid off the green credentials of cloud computing. Of the three million data centres worldwide, using 30 billion watts of electricity, the vast majority are shockingly inefficient, some wasting 90 per cent of their energy supply![22] Factor in that they are rapidly expanding, in order to meet an insatiable global demand, and it’s easy to see how the internet is an increasingly significant contributor towards GHG emissions.

In 2010, the Guardian declared the carbon footprint of the internet to be 300 million tonnes Co2 per year, and that the footprint of ICT was due to climb by 60 per cent by 2030.[23] In 2013, this figure was superseded by a study which found ICT produces over 830 million tonnes Co2 annually, and this figure is expected to double by 2020.[24] By 2013, worldwide daily Google searches rose to almost six billion. When multiplied by 7g Co2 per search, this produces a staggering 40+ million kg Co2 daily![25]

Public scrutiny of data centres

Stung by the NY Times, the data-centre industry has struggled to adapt to the ramifications of operating under close public scrutiny, and even industry insiders call for an ombudsman.

In 2013 Apple responded by -investing in making its data-centres 100 per cent powered by renewables. Google aims to do the same (30 per cent at present, no date set for completion), and through offsetting, claim to be carbon neutral. Yet a 2013 report by respected NGO Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) showed that many global corporations were failing to respond ‘in a meaningful way to the threat of environmental catastrophe’. Apple, Facebook and Amazon were all criticised for their refusal to take part in the survey. [26] 

Heads in the cloud

Proponents of cloud computing argue it is more energy efficient, regardless of whether data-centres are powered by renewables.

In December 2013, a research team in Dublin claimed to have developed ‘algorithms that can determine the best data-centre to send requests to’, in order to achieve reductions in Co2 emissions.[27] However, as cloud services are set to become the key growth area in ICT, questions relating to their efficiency and sustainability will remain whilst data-centres operate on the premise of providing services to users demanding an ‘instantaneous response to the click of a mouse and companies that put their business at risk if they fail to meet that expectation’.[28]

According to Baliga, cloud computing consumes more energy than conventional computing when users perform all their computing tasks in the cloud, and that the transmission and switching networks required to connect users to the cloud consume a significant, and little acknowledged, amount of the total energy used in cloud computing.[29] 

Demanding greater accountability

Given the number of different factors which contribute in a variable way towards the environmental impact of print and ebooks, it seems impossible to state with any conviction that one format is intrinsically greener than the other. Yet it is clear that environmental concerns have failed to feature prominently enough in the recent inexorable growth of ebooks, and in too many scenarios ebooks appear to be more polluting than the printed book. 

So where does this leave us, if we are committed to reducing the environmental impact of reading books? As this largely depends upon the actions we will all take in the future, it is imperative that we become more actively engaged, and demand greater transparency and accountability from all parties involved, in order to better inform our actions.

Both print and ebook formats are likely to remain, and both have much to do in order to improve their green performance.

Pressure needs to be placed on the book printing industry to commit to and publicise industry-wide, binding carbon reduction programmes. Consumers (including libraries) need to be prepared to pay a little extra for books from recycled paper, as well as sourcing books locally, and second hand wherever possible. Similarly with ebooks, it’s not likely to be -sufficient to passively wait for green ICT developments to deal with the burgeoning and often under-reported levels of GHG emissions, as well as the wider environmental harm they cause.

A culture of unscrupulous manufacturing practices, constant device upgrading, energy intensive usage, unnecessary printing and irresponsible disposal of devices which contain toxic substances all needs addressing. Companies need to be held more accountable for the full life-cycle environmental cost of e-reading devices, and for their role in the environmentally damaging impact that the internet, including the somewhat intangible cloud, has on the real world.

In the meantime, perhaps it’s a little early to dismiss the NY Times assertion that the ‘most ecologically virtuous way to read a book is to start by walking to your local library’ to borrow a copy.[30] 

Do you think an ebook or printed book is the greener reading option?

Let us know in the comments below


1 USA Today, 16 May 2013.
2 D. Yunginger and L. Yengle. ‘Consuming econtent: is it really ‘greener’?’ Wolper Information Services, 2013, p.4.
3 Market Watch, 25 September 2013.
4 E. Ritch. ‘The environmental impact of Amazon’s Kindle.’ Cleantech, 2009.
5 Eco-libris. ‘Some facts about the book publishing 
6 C. Borggren. (et al). ‘Books from an environmental perspective, part 1.’ International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 16, 2011, 145.
7 M. Enroth. ‘Environmental impact of printed and electronic teaching aids…’. Advances in Printed and Media Technology, 2009, vol. 36.
8 G. Chowdhury. ‘Building environmentally sustainable information services…’. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63 (4), 2012, 637.
9 Borggren, p.146
10 & 11 as 5.
12 as 2, p.5
13 G. L. Kozak and G. A. Keoleian. ‘Printed Scholarly Books and Ebook Reading Devices: a comparative....’ IEEE International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, 2003.
14 as 4, p.3
15 as 7, p.1
16 D. Goleman and G. Norris. ‘How Green Is My iPad?’ New York Times, 4 April 2010.
17 T. Genoways. ‘The Price of the Paperless Revolution’, Virginia Quarterly Review, 86 (4) 2010
18 N. Moran Are e-readers really green? The Millions, 1 May 2012.
19 G. Chowdhury. ‘How digital information services can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’ Online Information Review, 36 (4), 2012, 489.
20 as 2, p.1
21 Jisc Greening ICT programme.
22 J. Glanz. Power, Pollution and the Internet, New York Times, 22 September, 2012.
23 M. Berners-Lee and D. Clark. ‘What’s the carbon 
footprint of... the internet?’ Guardian, 12 August 2010.
24 Chan (et al). ‘Methodologies for assessing the use-phase power consumption…’. Environmental Science and Technology, 47 (1), 2013, 485
25 Statistic brain. Google annual search statistics.
26 J. Confino. Report shows companies still don’t take climate change seriously. Guardian Professional 12 -September 2013.
27 J. Novet. IBM takes aim at cloud computing with lower carbon emissions. Venture Beat, December 30, 2013.
28 See 22.
29 J.Baliga (et al). Green Cloud Computing: Balancing Energy in Processing, Storage, and transport. Proceedings of the IEEE, 99 (1), 2011, 149
30 See 16

Image reference

Coltan mining in DR Congo. Demand for precious metals, such as coltan, which are used in the manufacture of electronic devices, has seen a surge in their extraction, often in unregulated and dangerous mines in developing countries. Mining has used environmentally devastating methods, and has been linked to the funding of warlords, leading to further civil conflict and instability.
"RSN_3230" by Responsible Sourcing Network, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 / image cropped

Update Magazine

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, April 2014.

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