One question that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is: What’s better for the environment, eReaders or books? So, in this episode, I delve into the ins and outs of how to read sustainably. Trust me, there’s more to consider than you think!
Are books or eReaders better for the environment: Episode Transcript
Hello and welcome to everyday ethical, a podcast about all of the small ways that we can be more sustainable, without the pressure to be perfect.
I’m your host, Bethany Austin, and I’m an ethical lifestyle blogger and imperfect eco-warrior who talks about everything from slow styling, to cruelty-free cleaning.
Today we are going to bring together two of my biggest loves in life: Saving the planet and reading! I’m going to cover all of the eco and ethical considerations that you might want to make when it comes to picking out a new book. Including answer the question: Are books or eReaders better for the environment?
I’m going to cover eReaders, paper copies, libraries, charity shops and, of course, Amazon, to figure out the best way that we can all enjoy the written word, with as little negative environmental impact as possible!
Let’s dive in.
For those of you that don’t know, I am a total book nerd. I love reading, I love books and honestly I’m surprised I don’t talk about them more online!
But I’m actually an English Literature graduate. I graduated from the University of Roehampton last year, with first class honours just saying and I actually even got the highest grade in my year for my dissertation. So, yes, big book fan over here. I know a lot about reading and I do a lot of reading.
However, when I started to become more eco conscious in my life, I realised the the physical waste of books is something that I had never considered. Whilst I was at uni, reading around 3 novels a week, I was buying every single book on Amazon, in paperback, so that I could scribble all of my notes in them.
I’m also just really sentimental when it comes to books and I am a big believer that there’s something super special about having a physical copy. Which is why I have shelves of them, even after having donated probably about ¾ of those I collected whilst at uni.
So, bringing together my love for books and my love for the planet has been a bit of a journey. I mean, I don’t think that the biggest issue we have in our current environmental state is printing books. Let’s not pretend it is. But it is a contributing industry to waste and carbon emissions. I’m still figuring out the best way to bring together these two passions of mine and reconciling them, but I thought it was definitely worth sitting down and doing this episode, to just basically discuss all of the different aspects of this that I’ve been considering recently!
This is less of a “do this-do that. Here’s the best option” sort of episode, and more a “I’m still figuring it out and that okay” sort of episode. I hope that’s alright with you all!
I guess the first thing that comes to mind for me, and probably for you, when it comes to books and the environment is TREES.
Out of the 17 billion cubic feet of trees deforested each year, over 60% are used to make paper. Now, obviously, not all of that paper goes towards books but I’d imagine it’s a decent percentage. I can’t actually find any UK stats on it. So that’s a lot of trees being cut down, meaning less carbon dioxide being taken out of the atmosphere, meaning it’s a contributing factor to our global warming issue.
So, definitely something that needs to be spoken about, right?
Plus, there’s actually a lot of waste within the publishing industry. There’s a practice called “pulping” which is a big contributor. So, basically, publishing houses will often buy huge, HUGE amounts of a book to be printed. It works in their favour to do so because then they’re on the right side of the economy of scale: Meaning the more you buy of something, generally the less it costs per item. By doing it this way, producing the books costs them less per copy. However, not all of those books always end up getting sold. This then means one of two things: Either they’re sold to shops at a massively discounted price, or the published and booksellers pulp them. That’s when the old book is turned into pulp and made into a new paper item.
Obviously that is way, way more sustainable than just chucking the books away, however it’s also an unnecessary waste of energy in that recycling process, for something that wasn’t even used or so much as opened in the first place.
The paper used in physical books then is actually more of an issue than you might think.
The most obvious solution is to say “don’t read books” but that’s a stupid solution that’s not going to happen. And it shouldn’t happen because books are the best.
The second most obvious option, then, is ereaders! Now, I know these are way more controversial than they need to be: Some hard-core book lovers just hate eBooks. Maybe because they don’t look so good on the ‘gram (I’m not judging!) or maybe because of that sentimental, physical book thing that I was talking about. Either way, I know they’re not everyone’s thing.
However, there is less waste with an eReader. There’s no paper to recycle and no books to over-produce. You get all of the bookish goodness, without any of the physical product needing to be dealt with afterwards. Plus, you’re left with loads more shelf space which, if you’re like me and living in a tiny apartment, you probs appreciate.
On top of that, the Book Industry Environmental Council (Biec) predicts that the increasingly use of eReaders will reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the industry by 20 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. That is MASSIVE!
However, I wish it was that easy and I could just say, “yep, go for eBooks!”, but there are other things to consider. And there are definitely environmental downsides to eReaders too.
Apparently, according to the New York times, “the materials uses to produce an eReader equals at least fifty printed books.” So, in very simplistic terms, that means you need to read at least 50 books on your Kindle before it’s worth it environmentally. Plus, eReaders use a lot of electricity in the manufacturing process and, whilst books will eventually biodegrade, that plastic eReader will live a lot longer than you.
I love it when that happens don’t you? When you’re hard to find the best option but none of them are perfect so you have to make at least one sacrifice? That’s basically what I’ve realised while trying to make my reading habits more eco-friendly.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that, in terms of the physical product, I think it’s better to opt for an eReader, but only if you make it last! I’ve had mine for at least 5 years now, but I think longer and it’s still going strong. It’s been on holidays with me, to uni with me and, aside from a few scratches on the screen, it’s more or less as good as new!
Another thing to consider, alongside how you actually read, is where you get your books from. For the most part, I’d say this is an ethical consideration, but it also bleeds into being eco-friendly, as these things often do.
So, whilst eBooks might be the most eco-option in terms of production and waste, where do most people buy their ebooks from? Amazon! The kindle is the most-widely owned eReader out there. It’s the one that I’ve got, too.
Amazon don’t exactly have the best environmental record. Greenpeace actually rated them as an “F” in terms of their environmental practices and one of the major problems is that they’re just not clear about their emissions or waste: They publish little to no data on it, in fact.
On top of that, of course, you have the ethical issue of how badly Amazon paid staff as recently as last year. Whilst Jeff Bezos sat as one of the absolute wealthiest men alive – was he actually the wealthiest at one point? I can’t remember – but anyway, his workers were on minimum wage. Or what some dubbed as “starvation”.
There’s no doubt then, that the huge corporation that is Amazon are not the most kind out there. So, obviously that brings into question whether we should all be supporting them with our cash.
Let’s be honest, too, this isn’t just an ereader issue! Prime is bloody incredible for price and convenience, so a lot of us, myself included from time to time, buy physical books off Amazon!
They are a massive force within the book industry which, in and of itself isn’t an issue, but that also means that a lot of other book retailers, especially independent book sellers, are going under. Book shops are closing. And, for me personally, that’s really sad.
So, what are the options that we have?
Well, firstly, to support local book shops. To give money to companies that are actually putting food on someone’s table, not just lining the pockets of a billionaire out there.
Alternatively, you could support your local library. Borrow a book! That means less production waste because several people are using one book. And most ;libraries also offer ebooks now, meaning even less waste. AND THEY ARE FREE. It truly baffles me that more people don’t use libraries, they’re are incredible.
However, like everything I’ve said, they’re still not perfect. If you want to support an author or a publishing house then going out there and buying the book as an individual is a great move.
Finally, I think it’s important to touch upon what happens to books once you’re finished with them!
I hope nobody listening to this podcast just chucks their books away. If you do, you are hurting both the book lover and the eco-warrior in me There is literally no reason to throw a book away.
I think it’s safe to say that the best thing you can do with a used book is to pass it on to somebody else. If that’s a friend, great. If that’s a local school library, great. If that’s a charity shop, also bloody great! Let’s just keep books as accessible as possible for as many people as possible, whilst also preventing unnecessary waste going to landfill.
And I guess that’s another issue with ereaders, right? You can’t really pass on the love! You can’t share an electronic book. Or, at least, you can’t do so legally. So, from a sentimental point of view, whilst there’s no physical waste with an ebook, it sort of feels like a waste of the words? They should be enjoyed by more than one person and be accessible, even if you can’t buy them new.
God. It’s such a minefield, isn’t it? I literally don’t have the perfect answer to this one I’m afraid. None of them are absolutely ideal because books have so much more value than the physical product, and how you transfer that value, and how you support people that produce those books, are all things that matter and that should be considered.
With that being said, what will I be doing going forward? Well, here’s what I’ve decided: I’m going to be supporting my local library, probably through eBooks, as much as possible because I highly believe in their power as a community space, that you don’t have to pay to be a part of and I dread to think of a day when they’re not around anymore. On top of that, I will be trying to buy from independent bookshops a lot more to support them, too.
Again, totally not perfect, but it’s the best way that I can think of right now to consolidate my love for reading and my love for the earth.
Was that way more to think about than you expected? To be honest, when I started to look into this topic a while back I sort of thought it was only a paper waste issue but, boy was I wrong!
As I said, I’m still figuring this out so I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. You can find me on Instagram @bethanypaigeaustin, which will also be linked in the show notes! And, if you learned something new in this episode I would massively appreciate it if you would give me a review on iTunes, and maybe throw some kind words in there! It’s a great way to show your support for all of the free information that I put out there and all of the time that I put into the podcast and my other resources.
I hope you all have a lovely rest of your day and I’ll speak to you soon!