I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Are E-Books Environmentally Friendly?

At Illogicon over the weekend I was on a panel discussing the likely date when books printed on paper would shift from the most common way to distribute long narrative prose to just another object of interest to collectors. I have no doubts books will be printed a century from now. Vinyl records are still being made, and there are still people who manufacture saddles a century after the automobile pushed horses from the roads. But, the lower cost, ease of purchase, and vast possibilities of choice all but guarantee that e-books are going to be what people mean when they say “book” a few decades from now.

One benefit mentioned on the panel was the notion that e-books are better for the environment. One of the panelists, Tony Daniels, scoffed at this notion and said that all the energy needed to store and distribute e-books had an environmental cost. I was incredulous that he believed that that cost was greater than the cost of manufacturing and distributing books. But, the more I’ve thought about the matter, the more I suspect he might be right.

First, the costs of paper books: It takes energy to produce and distribute them. Shipping cases of books around the country (and even internationally) uses up a lot of fuel. Storing the books in climate controlled warehouses also burns up energy. Since I work in the printing industry, I can assure you that printing them requires equipment that sucks down electricity, and the main component of books, paper, is also rough on the environment, as anyone who has ever lived near a paper mill will attest.

Compare this to the tiny bits of electricity need to send an e-book across a network to your Nook, and it’s hard to think that an e-book isn’t better for the environment.

And, for the short term, it might be. But, what about the cost over decades, or even centuries? One nice thing about books is that, with care, they can last a very long time. A book printed today can sit on your library shelf for twenty years and then be read without adding anything to that book’s environmental cost. Lots of books do just this… sit around on shelves. They aren’t often simply thrown away. As a commodity, they are heavily recycled, passing from user to user, and when they do finally hit the end of their useful lives, they can be pulped to make more paper.

Your e-books, on the other hand, are read on electronic devices that are designed to be obsolete after two years. Suppose you have a book you read all the time—let’s just use the Bible as an example. A printed Bible can last a person many years. Let’s say that one has a useful life of twenty years of frequent use before it falls completely apart. An e-book version of the Bible over that same twenty years is going to probably live on a dozen different electronic devices. Every time you want to read it, it will drain a bit of power from your battery, power that will have to be replaced from the electrical grid. All the dead and obsolete electronic devices discarded over that twenty year span are going to have batteries made of toxic metals that are terrible things to put into landfills. The environmental cost of the total waste generated by obsolete electronic devices over the course of a decade is almost certainly greater than the environmental cost of obsolete books.

Finally, if you are worried about CO2 in the atmosphere, most paper is made from trees grown especially for pulp. This means that these trees suck CO2 out of the air, where it gets locked into paper and removed from the atmosphere for many, many years.

Someone a bit more dedicated to doing the actual data gathering on the environmental costs might come to a different conclusion, but, I think Tony Daniels was right. E-books aren’t better for the environment, especially over a long span of time. If you want to save the world run out and buy all the physical books you can get your hands on. I don’t have the hard evidence to prove it, but I think that books with dragons on the cover are especially good to purchase if you care about the planet.


Mr. Cavin said...


I'm still not convinced. It's a good argument, but there plenty are finer points. One, many of the devices mentioned are devices that are in use anyway, and reading books on them does not in any way limit their lifespans otherwise. While my house is heavy with thousands of books, my computer is the same as it ever was even though it, too, has thousands of books in it. Two, obsolescence does not necessarily limit utility. My Kindle has long since been replaced by generational upgrades, but I am still using it into its third year. My trusty Sony VAIO has already turned ten. I don't know how long it will take the Kindle battery to become useless, but that's the point when the utility finally ends. Three, trees grown for harvesting might lock CO2, sure, but trees grown and not harvested process that gas back into oxygen, replenish forest lands, curb erosion, etc. I cannot help but think there are more ecologically sound uses for our resources than planting trees just to cut them down again (and I'm looking at you too, Christmas).

Still, you figure out a way to make books out of all that ridiculous corn and I'll switch to your side.

Darkond said...

After doing some research (thank you Google) I've found that books never really had much of a negative environmental impact, except when they're burned. Books today are very eco-friendly, some friendlier than others, but they all fit into the decomposition cycle.
Ebooks do not. Ebooks don't require trees at all, not for creation or storage. The negative impact digital books is that the deivces we use to store and read them use absolutely nonrenewable resources. Rare minerals that are hard to find, stripmined, unreplenishable, and difficult to recycle. This isn't an economic problem now, just an ecological problem. We are in the digital age, and computers (of various size and shape) are becoming cheaper and more available to everyone. Another problem is power, but renewable alternatives have come, and are being slowly integrated.
http://what-if.xkcd.com/23/ Here you'll see a little data on exactly how much space the entire world wide internet takes up in relative physical space. It's not a lot. And as the amount of data grows, the efficiency with which we can store it will keep that physical space from growing exponentially.
If everyone on the planet were literate (About half the world is illiterate in whatever language they speak) and... hold on, how about some math?
Approximately 6,973,738,433 living people on Earth at the time I'm writing this.
Approximately 400,000,000,000 (400 billion) trees on Earth in 2005
And about 20-30 books per tree.
That's 1430 books per person, and then we have no trees to fix carbon to and convert CO2 or Oxygen. We would very quickly suffocate and/or overheat to death for the sake of everyone in the world to have lots to read. But on my computer, I have over 2000 books, and everyone else in the world could have that amount of books without causing deadly impacts to the ecosystem. There would still be a loss of resources, but it's much more efficient and less expensive than individual books.
This is a really big topic, I know I've only brushed the surface. There's a lot more to consider like where exactly the resources for one black and white ereader comes from, and how much it would take for everyone in the world to have one. But that's still 7 billion (possibly solar powered!) ereaders as opposed to 2.8 sextillion (2.8*10^21) books.
Time to get to class!

James Maxey said...

Mr. Cavin, I confess that I hold on to electronic devices long after later models come out as well, or at least I did, when my primary use was writing and browsing the internet. But, not most of my browsing has shifted to my phone, and the phone companies provide inducements to upgrade every two years. Also, most of my cell phones need new batteries after a few years, which previously wasn't a big deal, but now more and more phones no longer have user replaceable batteries, which I believe is further inducement to get people to give up thier phones as the battery life degrades.

Darkond, thanks for doing the math! If only every person on earth wanted to own 1430 books, writers would have a much easier time paying thier mortgages. The number of really avid readers is a pretty low percentage of the total population, however.

On a side note, if all the trees on earth were cut down, we actually wouldn't suffocate. The phytoplankton in the oceans actually produce the vast majority of our oxygen. Which is one reason we should be freaked out about ocean acidification, but that's something I might discuss in a future essay.

For what it's worth, I'm a fan of ebooks and don't plan to stop reading them any time soon. As Mr. Cavin said, most of the devices that people read ebooks on, like my phone of my Galaxy tablet, are devices that would be purchased and used anyway, so not reading ebooks wouldn't negate the environmental impact of these devices. Humans are going to leave an environmental footprint no matter what they do. Sometimes, all you can do is just be aware of where you're stepping, and try to tread lightly.

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