Reading Audit – Books, Glorious Books

For me, life isn’t quite whole unless I have a book on the go. Starting way back with Dear Zoo, progressing on to Goosebumps and anything by Paul Jennings or John Marsden. These days it’s preferably something fiction with an unanticipated plot twist although, it wouldn’t be unusual to see anything from self help to science in my ‘to read’ pile.

We live in an age of choices and abundance, including how we ingest books. From paperbacks to eReaders, audio books to PDFs, the choices we have in which we read (or listen) to our summer romance novels, true crime or guide books, are overwhelming.

So what is the greenest way to read? Paper books cut down forests, eReaders require minerals mined from the ground, and PDF’s and audio books require the internet (see my post on Mobile Phones to read about the impacts of the internet on CO2).

eReaders vs Books

After looking at a few life cycle analyses, there seemed to be some discrepancy between the figures on how much CO2 is produced when comparing eReaders and books. According to one study, by the Sustainable Electronics Institute, an Amazon Kindles requires 280kg of CO2 to manufacture, while a book (they used a Harry Potter novel as an example) needs only 1.7kg of CO2 to manufacture. The analysis included extraction of materials, manufacturing, packaging, transport (distance travelled) and disposal. You may look at these numbers and think ‘wow! Books all the way!’. But it’s not that simple. This is only the case if you were to purchase a new kindle every time you read a new book. Therefore, to get a more accurate picture it’s best to compare the total CO2 emissions and energy use for each to manufacture. What the study found was:

  • 172 books would use the same amount of energy as one Amazon Kindle 
  • 115 books would produce the same amount of CO2 as one Amazon Kindle

So you’d be safe to say that if you read 200+ books on your eReader, then it is more environmentally friendly than purchasing 200 new books. This means you’d have to read a book a week for almost 4 years. I can think of only one person I know who reads that much!

Another study by the University of California, Los Angeles ‘determined that, if using the eReader to full capacity, an eReader is a better option for the environment’. In this study they compared 1,100 paper books to one eReader. The data showed the eReader as astronomically better for the environment than books, but given the Sustainable Electronics Institute study noted the tipping point as around 172 books, then this seems glaringly obvious.

Life Cycle Impact Analysis from the University of California study.

Other arguments for eReaders included sustainable research and consulting group, Cleantech, who state ‘in 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees’. And, an article published in The Guardian claims, ‘reading a book at night for two hours uses more energy than charging an eReader’.

This doesn’t mean eReaders are good for the environment, they still require minerals dug up from the earth, like coltan and lithium, that are shipped from all over the world, sent for manufacturing, most likely to China, where they are made into your Kindle or Kobo, and then shipped back again to all corners of the globe for retail sale.

The Verdict:

I used to dream of having a library of my very own (not unlike that of Belle in Beauty and the Beast). The only thing wrong with this is, I don’t tend to read books twice. That’s a lot of dead trees collecting dust…

If you’re a sporadic reader, go for paper books, if you’re prolific go for an eReader. Better still buy second hand books and a second hand eReader (where we assume the eReader has knocked off some of the 200 books to neutralise it’s footprint).

What About Audiobooks?

There seems to be far less data available on the environmental impact of audiobooks versus paper books or eReaders. The information I did find was from blogs similar to mine and the general consensus is, audiobooks carry a small footprint than both eReaders and hardcopy books. Although audiobooks probably require more data to download than an eBook, they don’t need their own device such as a Kindle. You can listen to them from your phone, tablet or laptop. These are devices that you already own and serve multiple functions. And they don’t require back lighting, you can listen to them on your phone with the screen turned off, saving energy for charging.

The Verdict:

Although not backed up by peer reviews, they seem to be a greener option. Personally I find every time I listen to an audiobook I don’t take in as much information, this is probably because most of the time I end up napping and having to rewind to find the spot where I nodded off!

My Audible library.

eBooks and PDFs

Again very little data on the environmental impacts of reading PDFs and eBooks on devices you already own however, I’m going to presume they fall somewhere between an eReader and an audiobook. My theory here is you don’t have to purchase a new device (much of the footprint of an eReader is made up of it’s manufacture), but you do need to have the device lit up and working to read it (more energy consumed during use).

Audit Summary

In all the articles I read, unequivocally the most environmentally friendly way to read books is to loan them from the library. This way 100’s if not 1000’s of people could potentially read the same book for many years (if cared for properly).

So here’s my book reading hierarchy for what I plan to do from now on:

  1. Borrow from the library (including eBooks and audiobooks).
  2. Borrow books from friends or buy them secondhand and then pass them on to someone else.
  3. Continue to use my secondhand Kindle until it goes kaput. When it does, thoughtfully consider if I need another one (secondhand) or if I can continue to use the Kindle app on my phone/tablet.
  4. Only purchase new books that I will use over and over again (like a cookbook or manual/guide etc.), or that I can share, loan or pass on to others.
My current ‘to read’ pile.

Minimal Sam’s Reading Recommendations 2020/21

Just for fun here are some books I’ve enjoyed over the last 12 months (and how I read them):

Fiction

  • All Our Shimmering Skies – Trent Dalton (Kindle)
  • As Swallows Fly – (library hardcopy)The Choke – Sophie Laguna (borrowed from my nana)
  • Honeybee – Craig Silvey (Kindle)
  • Infinite Splendors – Sophie Laguna (library hardcopy)
  • Into the Water – Paula Hawkins (borrowed from a friend)
  • Leave the World Behind – Rumaan Alam (library hardcopy)
  • A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing – Jesse Tu (Library hardcopy)
  • A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman (Kindle)
  • The Midnight Library – Matt Haig (Kindle)
  • Normal People – Sally Rooney (Audible)
  • Playing Nice – J.P Delaney (library hardcopy)
  • The Survivors – Jane Harper (Kindle)
  • The Thorn Girl Laura Elliot – (Kindle)
  • Useful – Debra Oswald (borrowed from a friend)
  • The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (library hardcopy)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens (borrowed from my nana)
  • The Wife and the Widow – Christian White (library eBook)

Non-fiction

  • Buddhism for Mothers – Sarah Napthali (library eBook)
  • Everything is F*cked – Mark Manson (Audible)
  • Exhausted – Nick Polizzi and Pedram Shojai (library hardcopy)
  • The Ends of the World – Peter Brannen (library hardcopy)
  • The Headspace Guide to Mindfulness – Andy Puddicombe (Audible)
  • How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference – Rebecca Huntley (Kindle)
  • The Resilience Project – Hugh van Cuylenburg (Audible)

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