E-readers Or Paper Books – Which Is More Sustainable?

Reading is increasingly taking place digitally, and e-book readers are now mainstream. But what about the environmental balance? How eco-friendly are e-book readers? Utopia shows when electronic reading is kind to the environment – and under which circumstances it is better to reach for a book. The big festival of books, the 2020 Book Fair in Frankfurt, will only take place digitally this year due to corona. As regrettable as that is, it fits in with our reading behavior, which is also becoming increasingly digital thanks to e-book readers, tablets and smartphones. Every fourth citizen in Germany uses the e-book – more and more people are asking themselves whether the bottom line is whether electronic books are more environmentally friendly than printed ones made of paper.

Digital vs. printed – which book form is more sustainable?

The power consumption of the e-book reader is hardly worth mentioning : for one cent you can fully charge the battery of a typical e-book reader about six times. That means you can read about 40,000 pages, so at least 80 books (if you like fantasy ham). The trick works because e-book readers work with a very special screen technology: under the influence of electrical voltage, tiny drops of color move in such a way that either a black point can be seen or not. With e-book readers, the reading material flows directly to the device through data lines, the e-book is at least 20 percent cheaper to buy than a conventional book and does not need to be recycled after consumption.

The technique, called “e-ink”, is perfect for displaying text. The typeface is as rich in contrast as printed paper, it can still be easily deciphered on the beach, and thanks to additional lighting, the partner in the shared bedroom does not feel disturbed by a nightly reading marathon.

The good old book, on the other hand, looks old-fashioned. It rustles when turning the pages. It doesn’t light up by itself, you need a bedside lamp. A truck has to transport it from the print shop to the bookstore (or straight to your home if you are one of the online shoppers). Trees have to die for the paper used in 80 percent of all books , only 20 percent are created by recycling.

Tricky: the ecological balance of e-book readers

But as is so often the case, the first look is deceptive. The question of whether e-books or traditional books are more environmentally friendly cannot be answered in one sentence. And not even the master’s thesis that Ulrike Wilke submitted in the media management course at HTWK Leipzig ( PDF ) comes to a clear conclusion.

The problem: if you want to assess the environmental friendliness of a product, you have to look at the entire process in which it is manufactured and consumed. The manufacturers are responsible for the first part – but the users are responsible for the second. The good news: That is why it is in your own private power to improve the ecological balance of your favorite medium (see also tips at the end of the text).

Basically, books and electronics have something in common: The greatest environmental impact occurs during production. While paper production promotes deforestation and releases organic carbon into wastewater, minerals must first be extracted for e-book readers and tablets – with the well-known consequences such as the release of heavy metals in the soil and the release of toxins during production. Ulrike Wilke also points out the ethical and moral problems: the dwindling biodiversity due to forest monocultures, for example, or deforestation and the destruction of primeval forests on the one hand – child labor, environmental pollution, pre-industrial working conditions on the other. Together with energy demand, water consumption, and greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions, these factors lead to a ranking in which the book is clearly ahead of tablet and e-book reader .

When e-readers are better than books

First of all, because now you come into play – as a reader. You probably do not belong to the individual book consumer, otherwise you would not read this article. But maybe you will find yourself among the casual readers who manage around ten books a year: In this case, the tablet would be the preferred device. However, this only applies if you do not limit yourself to reading, but also use other media. If that’s not the case, stick with the book, which does just a little worse here.

It looks completely different with frequent readers. With 50 books per year, the e-book reader is clearly in the lead. The production of 50 printing units uses over ten times more resources than the production of an e-book reader. Even the tablet can no longer keep up here, as its use is ecologically more expensive due to the higher energy consumption.

Which e-reader to buy?

Anyone who wants to buy an e-book reader is faced with the question of the best e-reader model. Technically, the devices of the main competitors Tolino (a merger of Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel and other German booksellers) and Amazon hardly differ .

The Tolino Shine 3 and Kindle Paperwhite models are priced in a similar league (around 120 euros). Amazons Paperwhite is water-protected and therefore also suitable for the bathtub and offers good audio book support. The Tolino Shine 3 has a night light with reduced blue light, which is easy on the eyes and should ensure better sleep. In terms of the format of the books, the Tolino e-book readers are more flexible. The manufacturer is more important than the model. At Amazon, users have less freedom: You can only buy the e-books from Amazon and not pass them on. If you don’t want to or can’t make friends with Amazon, you would be better off with an open system such as Tolino, Pocketbook or Kobo.

You can get the Tolino model from all booksellers who support the project, including better providers such as Ecobookstore . You can only get Amazon’s e-book reader from electronics discounters.

Lending books from the library are unbeatable

However, the scenarios outlined are thought backwards from an environmental point of view – they are based on the average. The best way to design your private life cycle assessment is by yourself: if you pedal an old bike into the city library, borrow books there and only browse in natural light, you leave a minimal ecological footprint when reading.

Tips: How to improve your reading life cycle assessment

Book made of paper – this is how the ecological balance becomes better:

  • Shopping by bike
  • Use public lending libraries
  • Read in daylight
  • Switch to green electricity
  • Buy used books in town
  • Look out for “green publishing” in the bookstore. These books bear the “Blue Angel” environmental label.
  • Swap or give away read books

E-readers for e-books: How to improve the ecological balance:

  • Share device within the family
  • Buy e-readers in the store
  • Buy a new e-reader or a used one as rarely as possible
  • Buy a device with a replaceable battery
  • Repair defective devices if possible (instructions on iFixit ),
  • Use an e-ink e-reader instead of a tablet PC
  • Switch to green electricity
  • Dispose of the old device properly
  • Read more

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