E-Books vs. Print – The Environmental Effects of Reading

Should we be switching to digital literature?

Reena Bakir

In the age of digitalisation, e-readers have come to replace the printed book – spearheaded by an excess of devices like the Amazon Kindle. Slowly dominating the literature sector, digital readers allow users to store thousands of books on a single device, promoting accessibility and ease of use. However, many of us might be wondering just how our reading habits might be harming the planet. Are e-readers truly more environmentally friendly than the traditional book? 

The publishing industry has long been considered one of the most polluting sectors in the world. The lifetime of the printed book, from manufacturing to disposal, poses many risks to the environment. Of the most obvious of its negative effects is deforestation. The making of paper requires the cutting down of trees in large quantities, tipping the balance of a forest ecosystem and contributing to the loss of life. It is estimated that in order to meet the demand of printed books sold yearly, around 3.5 – 7 billion trees are cut down annually. Moreover, paper pollution through pulp mills negatively affects the environment, due to air, land and water contamination generated through its manufacturing facilities. The disposal of books – when left unrecycled, is also a major contributor to landfill waste. 

So, is the shift to e-readers really more sustainable and environmentally friendly? Studies have shown that in 2019, an estimated 1 in 4 people were using e-readers each month, with e-readers projected to make up around 75% of the book market by 2025. While it is correct that e-readers can limit the adverse effects of deforestation and paper pollution is correct, there are many other factors that can contribute negatively to the environment. During the production process, an array of minerals, some of which are toxic, are needed to manufacture a single e-reader. It also requires large amounts of fossil fuels and releases carbon dioxide waste as well as other poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere. 

Since it consumes less energy throughout its lifetime, an e-reader is considered the greener option than a tablet. Due to their ink requiring no backlighting, e-readers avoid the tablet’s need for more energy and battery. The e-reader’s need for the internet can also be considered an eco-implication, whereas the servers and computers used to produce digital publications use a large quantity of energy themselves. 

While the shift to digital literature can in many ways benefit the environment by eliminating the need for deforestation and the polluting processes of book-making, it doesn’t come without its own flaws. So how can you make your reading habits more eco-friendly and sustainable? Whether you choose to stick to your paper page books or join the shift to e-reading, there are a few ways you can ensure a more sustainable reading experience:

  • Buy used books, or swap books between friends: Old books can be swapped between friends or sold to a new reader. This eliminates the need for bookstores to restock, and saves your precious book from ending up in a landfill. 
  • Buy an e-reader for life: There’s no need to keep upgrading your e-readers when new versions come out. Use it until its lifetime is over and then recycle it instead of disposing.
  • Invest in audio-books: Audio-books which can be downloaded to your phones and devices are a great alternative to book-buying, and can make for a very interesting reading (or listening!) experience.