Weighing in at one and a half pounds, and thinner than most novels, the iPad is the newest addition to the e-reader family that can display a plethora of books at the touch of your fingertips. I’ll admit, I’m into the hip gadgets, including the Amazon Kindle, but I’m also attached to books with bindings. A question that ran through my mind was how the environmental footprint of one of the new glowing devices compared to a book that was printed on paper. Lucky for me, author Daniel Goleman, who wrote Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy, and Harvard lecturer Gregory Norris, who is currently coming up with open-source software that completes life-cycle assessments, did life-cycle analyses of the two and found how each stacked up.
Their process “evaluates the ecological impact of any product, at any stage of its existence, from the first tree cut down for paper to the day that hardcover decomposes in the dump. With this method, we can determine the greenest way to read,” they write.
An evaluation is done at each of these five stages: materials, manufacturing, transportation, reading, and disposal. E-readers require 33 pounds of minerals and 79 gallons of water; a book made with recycled pages uses 2/3s of a pound of minerals and 2 gallons of water. Manufacturing a book results in 100 times fewer greenhouse gases than an e-reader, but the amount of energy needed to charge it is less than what’s burned if you read for an hour or two by lamplight.
The authors eventually conclude that when considering fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, an e-reader owner would have to pore over between 40 and 50 books on the LED screen to match a hard-copy book. If global warming is the focus, however, one would have to read about 100 books on the device. To balance the effects to human health, which they also consider, 75 is the magic number.
Libraries are the best option, they say—if you walk there. After all, says my co-worker (when quoting a public service announcement from days of yore), it’s the latest, it’s the greatest, it’s the library.