Is the Kindle E-Reader Green?

I am convinced that very few people are as excited as I am about Amazon’s Kindle 3 Wireless Reading Device announcement.  The third generation of Kindle is 21% smaller and 15% lighter with the same 6″ reading area. The storage has more than doubled and a single charge of the battery lasts up to one month. And the best news of all? The latest 3G Kindle with built-in Wi-Fi is $189 (with a Wi-Fi only version offered at $139).

Flashback
I remember picking up my mail in November 2007 and looking at the cover of Newsweek with awe. “The Future of Reading” and an image of the soon to be released first generation Kindle (selling for $399) jumped off the cover. I devoured the article and couldn’t bring up Amazon’s website fast enough. I did some quick calculations in my head and realized that I had not spent even close to $399 in books in the last year. With a young child I just didn’t have the time to read that I used to and as much as I tried to rationalize a Kindle purchase, I couldn’t. Despite how excited I was I just couldn’t figure out how to justify spending $399.  It didn’t matter at the time – the Kindle sold out in 5 1/2 hours.

Over the years I continued to drool over the Kindle.  While still trying to justify buying a Kindle, I become interested in comparing the carbon footprint of the various e-readers to the environmental impact of print books.  Of course my interest was mostly selfish – I knew if I discovered that the Kindle was more environmentally friendly than purchasing print books that I might finally justify a purchase.

Kindle 3 Debuts on July 28, 2010

Fast forward to the announcement on July 28th that Amazon was taking pre-orders for the Kindle 3 to begin shipping on August 27.  I was finally sold.  I could no longer resist the smaller, lighter, cheaper version that holds more than double the amount of books as the Kindle 2 model.

And since I have nothing better to do besides wait by the mailbox until August 27th, I decided to look into the Kindle vs. Print book green debate again.  Here is a summary of what I found:

Is the Kindle Green?

A report in the June 15, 2008 issue of Environmental Science and Technology titled “Would You Like That Book in Paper or Plastic?” claims that, overall, e-readers are environmentally preferable to reading print books.  This conclusion assumes that the e-reader owner decreases their print and newspaper purchases to the tune of about 20 books and 2 newspaper subscriptions in the first year of ownership. Anything after that puts you in the green :-).

The sources used for “Would You Like That Book in Paper or Plastic?” included fascinating research for a master’s degree thesis by Greg Kozak and a U.C. Berkeley study. The studies cited in the article found that e-readers won out over print books and newspapers for environmental friendliness.

The basis for Kozak’s 2004 study were results from a life-cycle assessment adding up the environmental impacts from manufacture to disposal of e-readers compared to print college textbooks. Kozak found that a paper textbook created 4 times the greenhouse gas emissions of an e-book reader and several times more ozone-depleting substances. In addition he found that conventional books required more than 3 times the raw materials and 78 times more water than e-reader books.

Most surprising was that, despite the energy required to read books on an e-reader, e-readers used less total energy than print books during their entire lifecycle: 742 megajoules compared to 3794 megajoules for a print book.

The U.C. Berkeley study cited in the article “Would You Like That Book in Paper or Plastic?” showed that reading an e-book version of a newspaper results in the release of 32-140 times less CO2 compared to reading a print newspaper.

A report titled “The environmental impact of Amazon’s Kindle” published in August 2009 by the Cleantech Group found that the carbon footprint of a Kindle is offset after the first of year of use (assuming the Kindle owner has decreased the number of print books purchased by an average of 22.5 less print books in the first year). Critics of this report aren’t convinced that the “average” Kindle owner decreases the amount of print books purchased by 22.5. The critics also found fault with the lifecycle analysis referenced in Cleantech’s report because the assessor had no official data from Amazon about the manufacturing process of the Kindle.

As with many products, there are green pros and cons to the Kindle and other e-readers. I believe the limited research I found show that, if you significantly decrease the number of print books and newspapers purchased, e-readers leave a smaller carbon footprint than print books and newspaper.  I look forward to more data about the Kindle’s carbon footprint.

What do you think?  Share your thought in the Comments.

Sources:
Engelhaupt, Erika.  “Would You Like That Book in Paper or Plastic?”  Environmental Science and Technology. 42 (2008):  4242-4245.
Ritch, Emma. “The environmental impact of Amazon’s Kindle.”  Cleantech Group. 19 August 2009.
Godelnik, Raz.  “New report finds Kindle greener than physical books – is that really so?”  Eco-Libris Blog.  Godelnik, Raz.  5 September 2009.  29 July 2010 <http://ecolibris.blogspot.com/2009/09/new-report-finds-kindle-greener-than.html>

Comments

  1. I just needed to say that I discovered your weblog via Goolge and I am glad I did. Carry on the great work and I will make sure to bookmark you for when I have a lot more free time away from the books. Thanks!

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