eBook vs Paperback
Recently an idea came into my mind to research the Internet on the subject of an eBook carbon footprint. An eBook is an inseparable part of my lifestyle and I read a lot of pretty much everything. Obviously, I can’t drag around the world a ton of paperbacks, no doubt, they are nice to own. And no, I don’t possess an eReader.
The above mentioned information turned out to be unavailable. So, I decided to count it myself.
Sure, there are a lot of comparisons between paper books and eBook readers (see the links below if you’re interested). It’s the same as comparing a bookshelf and a book to each other.
However, I just don’t get the idea why I need an eBook reader. Should I also boil eggs in a separate devoted cooking device but not in a saucepan? Apparently, I have enough appliances that are fully capable of being an eBook reading platform. I already own a tablet, a laptop and a smartphone. There are quite different problems with recycling a bookcase made of chipboard than a book that I can throw into the fireplace when I no longer need it.
There are apps for a smartphone (eg EPUB Reader for all books you love or ePub Reader for Android), you can install EPUB Reader For Chrome on your computer. This is software that I use myself. The good thing about apps is the plentiness of adjustments: brightness, background, and appearance can be adjusted as you wish it. There is a night setting on the screen of a high-quality mobile phone / laptop that filters out blue light. Read: melatonin production is not disturbed, so you sleep like a baby despite the fact of using an electronic device in bed .
Usually, eBooks are also available in a PDF format that is compatible with every device.
Let’s assume that the technological progress that led to the development of literature, printing, electronic hardware, and software contributes evenly into both cases. Printing a traditional book requires quite a bit of new technology as well to make the smallest carbon footprint possible. It appears in all the links in the production chain.
Apparently, the ancillary costs of supporting the society, such as education, are presented equally in both cases as well. To guarantee the existence of literature, there should be a group of literate people, socially accepted and communally maintained. They need enough free time and resources to spend for immaterial products and a relevant device.
Partly, the tsunami of waste flooding over the world’s edges, as well as the global climate catastrophe are the other side of technological progress. The carbon footprint is in every single book we own, albeit as a fraction. No matter if it’s a paperback or an eBook.
Now to the details.
What does writing as a physical process consume?
Writing on paper with a pen is equated to a regular book. I don’t think many would practice it anymore. Although a notebook can still be found in the arsenal of quite a few writers, mostly it’s used for quick notes. Notebook + pen = 2.15 kgCO₂eq per person per day on average.
Writing with an electronic device. We’ll assume that the bespoken author has just purchased the particular device for the particular purpose of writing a book. Supposedly, it is a desktop or laptop. Of course, one can also type on a mobile phone, but on the final stage it won’t be a sufficient device. The tools are products of mass production. Mass production of consumer goods demands 2.39 kgCO₂eq per day per person on average. Let’s hope that the author is very productive and publishes a lot, so the consumption per book is small. The laptop should be a quality piece, so its amortization doesn’t influence significantly on the costs and recycling efficiency of the particular book.
Writing process requires electricity, technology and water. Water is for the author. Electricity and heating = 5.8 kgCO₂eq / person / day on average.
In most cases, the author’s life support has to be arranged by the efforts of the second or the third party. Our default is a full-time writer who does not produce physical products. He/She doesn’t have time to build their own house, grow their own food, or run after it in the woods. The average carbon footprint of one person’s daily provisions is 16.93 kgCO₂eq / person / day (calculated on the basis of 1500 kcal consumption and a compound diet).
The author must be literate. He/She has acquired these skills through long training. An average of 10 years. An average of 0.3 teachers per student. 0.63 kgCO₂eq / person / day with a life expectancy of 90 years. The prerequisite is that the physical presence of the author in the commodity production has not been required, at least as long as they attended school.
Our whole society is based on the existence of infrastructure. There is an electricity distribution network, telecommunication masts, data operators, the Internet, health care, compulsory education, running water, a sewer and a warm home where a paved road leads. The food comes from the shop next door. This all causes carbon footprints, but relevant calculations are difficult to make. Assume, that it is 0.5 kgCO₂eq / person / day.
The Internet is a far more physical revelation than one can imagine. It requires the existence of servers, maintenance, and electricity consumption. Add another 0.5 kgCO₂eq / person / day.
The distribution and advertising channels for both, physical and electronic products, require maintenance and human resources. And another 0.5 kgCO₂eq / person / day.
An eBook publishing process requires the existence of the relevant software for both actions: to create and to read it. Ownership transferring from one person to another requires a functioning (online)banking system. All of these processes demand resources and developed technology. Thus, the last 0.75 kgCO₂eq / person / day in this line.
The carbon footprint of an ordinary paperback production is relatively easy to calculate. In addition to the human resources used, it consists of raw materials, the manufacturing process and distribution costs. Its carbon footprint is estimated to be 1.752 to 2.71 kg CO₂eq per piece.
Transport, supply chain maintenance and retail costs are estimated at 3.08 kgCO₂eq per purchasing customer.
In the case of an eBook, it is more difficult to determine the manufacturing costs – most of them are hidden costs. If an eBook publishing services are included – software and server capacity for producing and storing the book – then it can be estimated at 0.3 – 1 kgCO₂eq / eBook / day depending on the characteristics of the server.
1 GB of download can cause up to 3 kgCO₂eq emissions. A standard eBook is 1-10 MB (depending on how many images you attach). The purchasing customer may spend another 0.03 – 0.5 kgCO₂eq / piece to obtain and read the book.
A book, in its immaterial or material revelation, stipulates resources through its entire life cycle as much as 3 119,80 – 3 221,94 kgCO₂eq / each.
3 119,80 kgCO₂eq / eBook
3 221,94 kgCO₂eq / paperback
The difference is 102,14 kgCO₂eq in favor of the eBook. Naturally.
Let’s assume our author is very productive and creates 3 full-length books a year. The rest of the resources go to advertising and maintenance.
That’s how I came to the above results:
A notebook and a pen are renewed once a year: 2.15 / 3 = 0.72 kgCO₂eq / book
Electronic devices and ancillary products of information technology needed at about 10 units per author; the default life cycle is 5 years, ie 1825 days: 2.39 * 10 * 365/1825/3 = 1.59 kgCO₂eq / book
Electricity and heating: 5.8 * 365/3 =705.67 kgCO₂eq / book
Provisions: 16.93 * 365/3 = 2059.87 kgCO₂eq / book
Education: 0.63 * 365/3 = 76.65 kgCO₂eq / book
Infrastructure maintenance (eBook): (0.5 + 0.5 + 0.5 + 0.75) * 365/3 = 273.75 kgCO₂eq / eBook
Distribution chain maintenance (paperback): 3.08 * 365/3 = 374.73 kgCO₂eq / book
Production (eBook): 0.8 -1.5 kgCO₂eq / pc
Production (paper book): 1.752 – 2.71 kgCO₂eq / pc
Consumption (eBook): 0.03-0.05 kgCO₂eq / pc
Consumption (paper book, in sunlight): 0 kgCO₂eq / pc
Recycling: no relevant data
In other words, the worst energy hogs of literature are the author’s lifestyle and habitat. Compromising on the quality of your computer, camera, or cell phone, will not give you the desired result. As well as skimping on your refrigerator. Education and infrastructure are imperative, so the author has to start from themselves.
The most ecological way to do the writing work is to sit under a palm tree by the sea, where day and night temperatures fluctuate around 25-30 C. With hygienic facilities in the yard. The existence of the house is voluntary. Then you can reach almost zero carbon footprint if you take into consideration the power consumption of your computer. Its battery can also be charged with solar panels. Alright, all the writers – get under the palm trees now, eat pineapples and peanuts. Paper notebooks and pens are forbidden 🙂
In case you have a desire to own a paperback, you should buy several of them on the same bookstore trip or just from the grocery store. Of course, you can also order online 🙂 The library is a more ecological option, but apparently not every book residents there. Queuing after a book is not any fun at all.
The emissions from consuming eBooks are negligible, just as much as a single 1 MB file download. That’s why reading an eBook is the biggest of today’s Eco-acts.
The most alarming aspect of the above calculation is that people have to read books, not just write, otherwise a huge amount of resources will be just wasted. In the case of an eBook, more losses can occur. The ostensible lightness of producing an eBook causes the flood of immaterial information sources that no one studies. Not that they are poorly written or unnecessary in the meaning of facts, but no one acknowledges their existence. Apparently, advertising and distribution channels for eBooks are still quite undeveloped.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found the costs of recycling disclosed for the paper book. All is counted under paper waste recycling. The lifespan of a modern paperback is relatively short. Of course, it stands several reads per user depending on the print quality. Let’s take a lifespan of 10 years. If a book is only read once in ten years, it is a waste of resources.
eBook recycling feels simple – it’s just a touch of the Delete button. However, that rarely happens. Usually the masterpiece is preserved and backed up several times. In the same ten years, the electronic facility will be renewed several times by either the end user or the cloud storage provider. It’s a pile of hazardous waste.
What can we deduce from this calculation?
Definitely, an eBook is a more ecological option if being read. Whereas, if instead of one paperback, 100 eBooks are produced to collect stardust on a virtual bookshelf, it is not an Eco-act.
So, we can easily make any literary piece to reduce its carbon footprint just by reading it. The more readers every single book has, the greener our planet turns.
Have a nice read, guys!
This article in other languages:
Finnish / Suomeksi
Statistical data sources: