Print books vs e-books

G Magazine (issue #26, May/June 2010)

How do new-fangled digital and old-fashioned print books measure up against green criteria?

read a book

E-books have emerged as a viable alternative to the printed tome.

Credit: iStockphoto


E-books have emerged as a viable alternative to the printed tome.

Credit: Bebook

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In this digital age we're becoming more and more used to downloading than handling hard copies. CDs have almost gone the way of vinyl records thanks to the growing thirst for digital music, and legal movie downloads are becoming increasingly popular. More recently, e-books have emerged as a viable alternative to the printed tome.

An e-book is a digital book that is read on a portable hand-held device known as an e-reader or tablet. E-readers enable reading using reflective (natural) light that doesn't need front or back lighting. They have a 180-degree viewing angle and the ability to store many entire books. The environmental burdens associated with producing, storing, shipping and selling traditional print books are dispensed with, but what about the electricity e-readers consume and the materials they're made from?

The industry

In 2009, 64.8 million printed books were sold in Australia with a value of almost $1.3 billion, and the market is growing. E-book sales in the US soared 176.6 per cent from 2008 to 2009. While digital formats account for less than one per cent of book sales, several new e-readers such as the iPad are hitting the Australian market
this year and will likely act as the tipping point for e-book sales.


The main components of printed books are paper and ink. On average, each tonne of paper produces 3,300 kg of emissions and consumes 18 trees, 67,500 L of water and 9,500 kWh of power.

However, the Australian printing industry is continually working to reduce this impact. A small but increasing proportion of printing companies are going carbon neutral, and demand for greener paper is gathering pace, with publishers increasingly switching over to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper. But despite the demand, the Australian Publishers Association says FSC-certified paper is difficult to source with most of it produced in the northern hemisphere.

Vegetable-based inks are also making their way onto pages; chemical solvents are being reused; offcuts and rejects are being recycled; and efficient presses are reducing energy consumption and pollution.

E-readers comprise several plastic, rubber, metal and glass components, which all have impacts in their manufacture. 'E Ink' technology, which enables the device to create and sustain an image, consists of a thin plastic laminate crammed with tiny capsules containing black (carbon) and white (titanium dioxide) particles. E-readers that use E Ink are less power-hungry than other e-readers because the static charge holds the image without consuming power until the user 'flips' the page.


Books printed in Australia have a shorter distance to travel than e-readers, which are manufactured overseas. Books are transported to a wholesaler's warehouse and then distributed to bookstores, libraries or directly to the customer (through online purchasing). An e-reader has the added impact of packaging. Where the e-reader reduces environmental impact is that it only has to be delivered once, after which e-books can be downloaded. Each print book purchased has to make a physical journey to its owner.


The printed book obviously requires no electricity to use, but a bookworm's travel to and from bookstores must be taken into account - whereas an e-book can be downloaded wherever you are. As with all electronics, the storage of e-books on servers has an impact, as servers need to be manufactured and eventually discarded themselves (see "Download damage", p66). When the user downloads the e-book, the data file travels through a communications network (which also requires manufacture and disposal). The highest energy consumption of an e-book's life, though, occurs as it's being read.

End of life

The vast majority of printed books are retained, sold or donated, rather than being discarded. Ninety-two per cent of Australian households recycle or reuse paper products. Generally, unsold books are returned to paper mills where they are pulped and recycled into other products.

Electronics have a less eco-friendly finale. A measly 10 per cent of TVs and computers in Australia were recycled in 2007-08. However, this is set to change with the introduction of a national e-waste recycling scheme in 2011. Companies like Amazon are leading the way with a recycling program for its own Kindle e-reader and Kindle batteries.

Life cycle analysis

A 2003 US study compared the life-cycle impacts of a student reading 40 printed textbooks with the equivalent amount of digital information (53.6 MB) using an e-reader (the REB 1100). The report found that printed books "required more raw materials and water inputs, consumed more energy, and produced more air and water emissions and solid wastes" than e-books.

Printed books resulted in the emission of almost four times the amount of greenhouse gases than e-readers. Moreover, they emitted larger quantities of ozone-depleting substances and chemicals associated with acidification.

This study was based on an LCD e-reader, which is more power hungry than those that use E Ink. But despite this, printed books still used more energy during their life cycle: 3,794 megajoules (MJ) compared with 742 MJ for the e-reader. The researchers also assumed that e-waste would go to landfill.

More recently, a Swedish study compared the environmental impact of a printed newspaper, a tablet (iRex Iliad) newspaper and a web-based newspaper. The analysis covered, among other things, global warming, pollution of waterways, ozone layer depletion and resource use. The report ranked the tablet and web-based newspapers as the better environmental options.

The verdict

The e-book appears to be greener. However, an independent report by Cleantech assessing the environmental impact of the Kindle e-reader points out: "There will be no reductions in emissions attributable to the publishing industry unless publishers print fewer books in anticipation of e-book sales."

To reduce your reading impact, you need to actively use e-books in place of printed books. The Cleantech report stresses that an e-reader device would have no overall environmental benefit in its first year of ownership for the typical user, but that every year of use afterwards would compound its benefits. Overall, it calculates that using a Kindle could save you an average of 168 kg of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

So before investing in an e-reader, think carefully. Ensure that your model has E Ink; use it in place of books, newspapers and magazines; investigate greener ways to charge the battery; hold onto the unit for as long as possible; and ensure the device is recycled at the end of its life.

For paper addicts

The good old library is the greenest option for lovers of traditional books. Second-hand bookshops, markets and op-shops are also good places to source pre-loved volumes. Or, try www.ilovereading.com.au - an online book club that posts books to members. Read at your leisure and return in the pre-paid envelope provided. What a novel idea!