Monday, 11 July 2011

How not to compare paper books and ebooks

I've recently seen an environmental comparison of using an ebook reader and paper books in an august US newspaper, and I was very impressed at how much it managed to get wrong - or at least the way it put a particular spin on things.

First it claims to be comparing paper books with 'e-readers like Apple's new iPad and Amazon Kindle,' and goes to on to quote very exact amounts of resources consumed in the manufacture like '33 pounds of minerals.' Yet the iPad and the Kindle are hugely different - there is no way a Kindle would have the same manufacturing footprint as an iPad. The article is also rather sneaky in comparing e-readers with 'a book made with recycled paper.' I'm not sure I've ever seen a book made from recycled paper. I'm not even sure it's possible to do cost effectively. This is not realistic - it's cheating. Almost all books are made from trees, with possibly a small percentage of recycled paper thrown in - get over it.

Next it talks about fossil fuels. There is plenty described about the energy hungry consumption in manfacture of electronics, but nothing about the fossil fuels used in cutting down trees and trucking the logs all over the place and converting them to pulp. Again, cheating here I'm afraid.

Then there's a bizarre section about reading the book. It says if you read a book in bed, you can save energy with an e-reader because of the cost of the electric light, but read in daylight and the paper book wins. Has this person never seen a Kindle? Yes, you could read an iPad in the dark (though I'm not sure many people would), but you can't read an e-ink based e-reader in the dark. It's not backlit. Doh.

In then asks how many volumes you need to read on an e-reader to break even (environmentally). The answer given is 40 to 50 on resources or 100 with global warming thrown in. And the conclusion the writer seems to give is this shows that paper books are best. Leaving aside the fact that the sort of people who buy an e-reader probably read 40 or 50 books in a single year, there's a huge problem here, at least when looking at the iPad. Most people who read books on an iPad had an iPad anyway. They didn't buy it to read ebooks.

I admit you aren't going to have a Kindle 'anyway' - reading books is what it is for. But if you have an iPad for other reasons, then once you've got it, reading books on it makes great environmental sense, because you are only comparing the incremental energy consumption with all the environmental cost of producing a paper book. Oh, and I notice the writer doesn't take into account the additional environmental impact of all the books that are made, transported to bookshops, transported back to the publisher, then pulped because of the idiotic sale or return system.

Don't get me wrong, although I do sometimes read things on my iPad, I still prefer 'real' books. I am very happy for people to buy real versions of my books - I think they are worth the environmental impact. (Though e-book fans should note that Inflight Science is currently at the bargain price of £2.49 at or $4 at I love having books on the shelf in a way that having a pile of titles on an ebook reader will never satisfy. But please don't try to use pseudo-green arguments to turn people off e-readers. It's just wrong.

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