Books – so innocuous and lovely, such a comforting heft in your hands as you turn the pages. They are not SUVs. Who would suspect them of contributing to the poisoning of our environment? A nifty gadget like a kindle may seem more suspect. But there are a wealth of factors to tease apart.

The impact of the book industry is not small. A study by the Green Press Initiative and Book Industry Study Group found that in 2006, the US book industry consumed 30 million trees, and had a carbon footprint equivalent to 12.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide (8.85 pounds per book sold). On the other hand, one e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals, while a book made with recycled paper consumes less than a pound of minerals. The negative health impacts of making an e-reader is approximately 70 times greater than that of making a single book. Calculations are hampered by lack of transparency from e-reader manufacturers, and all of these approximations depend on a dense net of variables: is the book used, will it be lended, will it be recycled, do you read at night while using electricity?; how long will you keep your iPad, will you share your electronic books, will they truly take the place of paper books, will you recycle your device – and, if so, what does that mean? Recycling these devices is a tricky business, and many of them are sent to China, for example, and dismantled by children in dangerous working conditions.

Depending on whether energy use, global warming, or human health is measured, an e-reader “breaks even” with respect to the environmental costs of paper books at 40-100 books read on the device.

I feel that buyers of both books and e-readers alike are not motivated in their purchases by a concern for the environment. People who love books may be excited or even swayed by knowing a book is sustainably published, but their choices are likely more heavily weighted by other factors (I think about trash and recycling more or less constantly, but the first time I thought of these matters was while researching this blog). Folks who buy e-readers don’t want to lug books around, and they love new technology. It is up to publishers and device manufacturers to care about the environmental impact of the products they make. That said, the fact that the Green Press Initiative and publishers like Ooligan are opening a dialogue will change the way people perceive the paper in their books; articles in the New York Times such as “How Green Is My iPad?” will spread knowledge and concern about the many toxic dangers in the lifecycle of an e-reader. And on a hopeful note, the book industry has dramatically increased its use of recycled paper, from 5% in 2006 to 24% in 2010. The electronics industry is attempting to decrease its use of toxins and to improve working conditions throughout its chain of production.

But are we comparing apples to oranges? In ten years, everyone will have an e-reader; books will certainly not disappear, but the environmental impact of their production will likely be small. Perhaps rather than asking, Paper or plastic?, we should ask, How will we address the wastefulness of our society all across the board?

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