I generally have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world of technology. I don’t like it, and it definitely doesn’t like me. Two days ago, I forced myself to go around taking pictures for the school newspaper. The button worked, it made a clicking sound… but when I got back, we discovered that the camera hadn’t taken any pictures. No one could fix it either. Whether caused by bad luck or my propensity for accidentally destroying electronics, this is really quite typical.
So naturally, I am a staunch defender of printed books even as e-readers seem ready to wipe them out of existence. “Real books are solid,” I argue. “You can smell them, turn their pages, write in the margins, have your favorite author sign them… they’re better.”
To which e-reader defenders respond with a list of impressive statistics. E-readers hold more books, take up less space, and – the final winning point – they’re better for the environment.
This final argument always made me sulk. I’m all for the environment, and I was aware that my love for paper books meant cutting down more trees. I just couldn’t make those two opinions align.
Then I really started thinking about it. I’d always taken it for granted that e-readers were better, environmentally speaking. But once I considered things more, it became a lot less clear.
Both products need to be manufactured. However, I’m willing to bet that books take a lot less in terms of machinery needed, energy used, and raw materials/waste produced. Books are paper, ink, covers, and binding. E-readers have screens, casing, electronics, and all sorts of crazy gadgets these days.
The make-up of both products was the most interesting to me. Books are primarily paper. There are other ingredients, yes, but the majority of their mass is made out of paper. Paper is recyclable, and it can be renewed by planting more trees. Books, once they’re in the trash, will break down fairly quickly.
On the other hand, e-readers contain plastics, glass, rubber, and electronics. I’m sure there’s more stuffed inside as well. Any metal used is non-renewable. You can’t magic more ores into existence. The use of plastic is another concern. *puts on HL Chemistry nerd hat* Because of the nature of the bonds in plastic polymers, plastics never break down. Ever. Even if the earth was vaporized, some of that vapor would be plastic molecules, all their atoms securely in place. Think about that for a moment. Every piece of plastic ever made will and always will exist somewhere. Do we really want to keep making more?
That’s not even mentioning the electricity that constantly is needed to power the e-reader. Plus, they need batteries – a nemesis of the natural world, full of acid and other fun stuff.
Finally, I looked it up. According to the Sierra Club, the e-reader is less environmentally friendly unless you’re buying over 23 books a year. Another source said that you must read 100 books (that you otherwise would have bought) on an e-reader before things break even.
Everyone agrees that there’s one definite winner in environmentally friendly reading: the library. Hundreds of people can share the same book, and there’s no damaging technology involved.
Either way, the environmental debate isn’t as clear as you might think, and I can go on reading my paper books with a clear conscience.