The surging popularity of e-readers like the Apple iPad and the Amazon Kindle has bookworms wondering if the days of the printed page are numbered. But which is more sustainable? Conventional wisdom (and tech research) might have you believe that e-books are the greener alternative, but it may not be so clear cut.
E-readers are no different from other handheld electronics – they're made from mined materials (including exotic metals from war-torn central Africa) and contain a variety of toxic chemicals in their circuitry. Books of course rely on dead trees, and printing usually uses toxic inks. But a large and growing percentage of books are printed on FSC-certified paper using soy-based inks.
In terms of carbon footprint, manufacturing e-readers is more energy-intensive than books, but the carbon-hungry process of transporting books gives digital devices the nod in emissions.
Since it depends on the weight you give to particular factors (resources, emissions, toxics), there really isn't a determinative answer. The way we see it, until an e-reader made of 100% recycled parts comes out, the greenest way is to read is probably taking a walk to your local library and borrowing a book.
What do you think?
(For a great life-cycle assessment of books vs. e-books, check out this New York Times Op-Chart.)
Photo: ceslava.com, Flickr