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Paper Books vs. eBooks: Which Are Better for the Environment?

paper books vs. ebooks
Foto: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash / Clayton Robbins

eBooks have risen in popularity in recent years. We’ll discuss the environmental impacts of paper books vs. eBooks to help you choose the most sustainable option for you.

The Rise of eBooks

The debate is growing about whether paper books vs. ebooks are better for the environment.
The debate is growing about whether paper books vs. ebooks are better for the environment. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Pexels)

Although it seems like eBooks rose to popularity very quickly, they were actually 40 years in the making. In 1971, Michael Hart started Project Gutenburg, often considered the beginning of the making of eBooks. Project Gutenburg made electronic editions of the world’s best literature freely available. Although a variety of digital devices were released in the 1990s — like the Rocket eBook, released in 1998 — there was no book-sized, portable gadget yet available to consumers.

That changed with Amazon’s 2007 launch of its Kindle e-reader, which brought eBooks rapidly into the US trade book market. The Kindle gave consumers a portable, easy-to-use eBook reading device. Prior to 2007, less than 1 percent of book-market sales were eBooks, but within five years of the Kindle’s release, they reached 20 percent of the US trade book market.

When eBooks began to grow in popularity, book lovers were worried that paper books would disappear and book shops would close down. However, eBook sales have slowed down over recent years while print books continue to thrive. One explanation for this trend is that many people prefer the physical experience of reading a physical paper book over that of reading an Ebook. Ebooks and real books today seem to be able to coexist.

The Environmental Impact of eBooks

eBooks are often considered better for the environment than paper books.
eBooks are often considered better for the environment than paper books. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / StockSnap)

eBooks have a range of benefits and drawbacks when it comes to their environmental impact. Here are some of the most notable of both.

Advantages of eBooks:

  • Saved trees. eBooks do not require trees to be cut down to make them.
  • Reduced carbon footprint. The popular habit of getting books delivered directly to your house contributes to pollution and waste. Sometimes, books travel hundreds of miles in planes and trucks.

Disadvantages of eBooks:

  • Potentially supporting environmentally unfriendly companies. If you buy a Kindle, you are supporting Amazon, a company whose environmental impact raises many climate change concerns.
  • Mineral extraction. One study found that eBook readers require the extraction of up to 33 pounds of minerals, including trace amounts of exotic metals mostly found in Africa.
  • Release of fossil fuels. Manufacturing a single eBook reader uses 100-kilowatt hours of fossil fuels and releases 66 pounds of carbon dioxide.
  • Improper or illegal recycling. Suppose you do not recycle your E-reader correctly. In that case, it may be sent to developing countries where illegal workers, including children, must dismantle it by hand — exposing them to a range of toxic substances.
  • Energy consumption. Storing and downloading data from the internet necessitates a carbon footprint.

The Environmental Impact of Paper Books

The main environmental concern about paper books is the number of trees required to make them. 
The main environmental concern about paper books is the number of trees required to make them. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / LubosHouska)

The benefits of paper books:

  • Regifting options. Paper books can be regifted once you finish reading them. You can also donate them to your local library, halfway house or prison. Discover more ideas about what to do with old books here.
  • Free reading. If you like reading paper books, borrow books from your local library to avoid contributing to the environmental impact of new books. It also saves you lots of money.

The drawbacks of paper books:

  • Deforestation. The global loss of rainforests adds about 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the environment each year. To make books, the paper industry cuts down trees, contributing to deforestation. Reducing the number of books we produce could be a solution to reducing deforestation.
  • Environmentally unfriendly ink. The ink used to print books is often petroleum-based, damaging the environment and contributing directly to carbon emissions.
  • Improper disposal. Many people don’t know if recycling books is possible, leading unwanted books to get tossed in the trash and end up in landfills.
  • Water intensive. Papermaking is a water-intensive process.

Paper books and eBooks each come with environmental pros and cons. Think about your reading habits to help you choose the most eco-friendly option. If you read a lot of books, an eReader may be the most sustainable choice — unless you buy your print books second-hand.

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