It depends on who you ask of course. According to a New York Times article, with respect to resources used to produce a typical e-book reader, it would require a purchaser to buy between 40 and 50 books to tip the scales in the direction of the e-reader as being more eco-friendly. When the phenomenon of ‘global warming’ is taken into account (if you believe there is such a thing) the breakeven point jumps to 100 books. For those of you who play the middle, experts Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris put the figure is somewhere between 50 and 100 books with respect to human health consequences.
According to an article in the Washington Post, the average American reads between 5 and 9 books per year (men vs. women respectively). If e-books became the norm for most readers, it would take ten years or longer to truly say that those e-book readers are ‘greener’ than traditional books. Granted, e-readers, especially those purchased by early adopters, are purchased by higher-than-average book readers, and so this number probably gets cut in half or better.
According to an article published by Ray Godelnik for the Independent Book Publishers Association, physical books are becoming more eco-friendly as publishers learn greener practices. Godelnik believes that the future of the book industry will probably include greener versions of both physical and electronic books.
Currently, Americans generate more than 3 million tons of electronic waste, according to the EPA, with only roughly 13% of this getting recycled. Where will the busted e-reader fit in this mix? Many contain ‘a variety of toxic materials’ according to the article, many of which would leach into ground water through landfills.
This will be an interesting story to follow as e-books continue to become more popular and e-book devices become less expensive and more mainstream. Traditional book publishers are doing a better job in the past few years embracing green manufacturing/paper with a growing percentage of books coming from recycled materials.
Let’s hope the paper book’s electronic cousin can say the same thing.