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« Data and Darwin 2 | Main | Limits on lists - and change »

How "green" are e-books?

From Going Green? Good luck (Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 6, 2010)

Another example of when obvious isn't: Abandoning "dead-tree technology" in favor of electronic books. It would seem a clear plus, protecting forests, avoiding the polluting process of papermaking and reducing the greenhouse-gas-producing decomposition of any books that wind up in a landfill.

But according to research about "life-cycle assessments" in the New York Times, an e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals, including exotic metals from oppressed and war-torn countries. Manufacturing an e-reader and batteries requires some 79 gallons of water, uses an equivalent 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuel and produces 66 pounds of carbon dioxide.

By all of these measures, producing a paper book has far less effect on the planet. In terms of environmental benefits, an e-reader, said the Times, doesn't break even until it has replaced the production of 40 to 100 books. That suggests e-readers may pay off in the long term. But their benefit is hardly clear-cut.

Oh, and here is an interesting little factoid:

...while ardent conservationists may save a few gallons of water by taking short showers, we waste far more than that by brewing a pot of coffee we don't drink. When you consider how much water is used in growing, processing, transporting and selling coffee, the virtual water use of a single cup of is 37 gallons.

Guess I better go finish the second pot I put on this morning.

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Reader Comments (4)

Articles such of this one in the Star-Tribune should be widely discredited, not recycled as 'fact'.

The whole "use of water" statistic is misleading. Water that is "used" is not always destroyed; in fact, in usually isn't. Take coffee, for example. A good percentage of the water "used" is water that goes into washing the beans. The water may go down the drain and into the sea, but it isn't destroyed.

This is also the case with e-readers. The water "used" doesn't actually end up inside the e-reader. Otherwise, the reader would be mostly water. Rather, it is water that is used for cleaning, cooling, and other ancillary operations. Sometimes it just drains off; other times it is emitted as steam (whereupon it becomes rain again almost immediately). Or this example, also from the article: "The water used in making a single pair of leather shoes: 4,400 gallons, writes Kostigen." Obviously, shoes do not contain 4,400 gallons of water. Obviously the water is used in washing (and maybe feeding cows and leather plant workers?) and other non-consumptive processes.

Sometimes the advice is ridiculous. "Kostigen also suggested that we each have an obligation to save water because water shortages are common elsewhere." Think about that for a second. How would saving water in Minneapolic - or Ontario - help someone in the Sahara or Australia? It won't, not a whit. Water is so heavy it is almost never transported any great distance; that's why water shortages exist. Water shortages are local conditions, and can only be addressed by saving and production locally. Saving water if you live in a rainforest won't do a thing to help people living in a desert.

Of more concern are the materials used to create ebooks, and in particular, the minerals and the energy. Once again, the figures are misleading. Of the 33 pounds of materials, very few are actually used; the remainder is typically the rock based from which the mineral was extracted. Other materials are catalysts, and may be transformed, but don't cease to exist. Very little actual silicon, aluminum, copper or lithium actually goes into the devices.

(That said, we are almost at 'peak lithium' - but the greater culprit here will be, as usual, cars. As well, the plastics and synthetics used in the devices are often oil-based, but again, the consumption is a small fraction of that consumed in the manufacture and driving of cars).

And while some of these materials are "exotic metals from oppressed and war-torn countries" the problem here is not the ebook readers themselves but rather the conditions under which we extract the materials. Over time, the number of oppressed nations has decreased, which is good. And a great many of these materials are extracted from nations like Canada and Russia, hardly the definition of oppressed and war-torn.

The energy required is probably the most significant. And it's important to notice how the author evades stating the exact truth with phrasing like "an equivalent [of] 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuel and produces 66 pounds of carbon dioxide."

In fact, very little of the electricity used to produce ebook readers comes from fossil fuel sources. It's too expensive! It costs twice as much for electricity produced using oil and coal plants as it does electricity produced using hydro plants. Hydro plants are clean and use a renewable fuel - the energy of water as it flows from mountains to the see (the water is not "used" - it is still perfectly good after powering the turbines).

To day, less and less electricity is produced using fossil fuels. Most nations are using a combination of hydro, wind and nuclear power. Operations that require a lot of power and water - the extraction of aluminum from bauxite, for example - are located near remote rivers and hydro dams - places like Shawinigan or Kitimat, for example - and don't use any fossil fuels at all and produce only a small fraction of the carbon dioxide suggested by the author.

Finally, let's consider the economics of ebook readers. "An e-reader, said the Times, doesn't break even until it has replaced the production of 40 to 100 books." It is interesting that this quote comes from a newspaper, which produces the equivalent of at least a book every day. If - generously - we equate one newspaper to one book, we reach the break even point in about four months of use. That's assuming the only use was to read one newspaper each day, and nothing else. If fact, with actual use, the break-even point is more like a couple of weeks.

A lot of work goes into minimizing or discrediting the efforts of environmentalists. Articles like this try to p;lay on their purported misconceptions. They are usually arguments created by and for energy end environment wasting industries like newspapers and newsprint. They are afraid of newsprint readers because they reduce demand for what is actually a very expensive product, and provide access to content that now can be distributed around the world almost for free. But what they are really trading on - and perpetuating - is their own readers' lack of knowledge.

Another example in the same article, for example, says: "Near Leamington, Ontario, 1,600 acres -- more than two square miles -- is under glass. Folks nearby can say goodbye to far-off, hard-as-rock California tomatoes in favor of plump local tomatoes all winter long. But the fuel saved in transportation doesn't compare with the energy consumed in lighting the greenhouses in the dark of winter and heating them with propane."

I've been to Leamington and can attest to the scale of the greenhouse operations. But the article misrepresents what is happening. You can't grow enough tomatos for 16 million people in two square kilometers (even though that's an awful lot of tomatos). And, fortunately, the "dark of winter" is very brief, very mild, and very light in southern Ontario (which is at the same latitude as northern California). The greenhouses are used only part of the time. Each greenhouse is surrounded by square kilometers of field. Drive through there in the summer or fall and you'll see field after field of tomato growing outdoors. They have been nurtured from seedlings indoors, but not grown indoors.

And, in fact, it's not clear that even running a local greenhouse full time is more expensive than trucking produce from California. Perhaps while gas and diesel are at their current, artificially low, pump prices, it appears more economical. But realizing, again, that most Ontario power is produced by hydro power (not a small bit is coming from the nearby Niagara Falls) the cost is actually a lot less than the writer might suspect.

It's disappointing and sometimes even dispiriting to see such rubbish printed in what should be a credible source. It's a reminder that we cannot depend on traditional media and traditional sources (such as Discover magazine) for our education. We are well and truly on our own, as most of our established media are now doing more harm than good through their ongoing and pernicious political activism.

June 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Downes


Your response was truly the response of the year(s). I feel I should receive college credit just for reading it. I thought I knew something about the environment before reading this.

Anyway, the question is, how can e-readers be used in a library context? I cannot imagine circulating devices, and I know the students who check out USB flashdrives and never return them because they couldn't possibly get their own, are not going to have an e-reader. Books are still the only handy way for kids to find something to read. Even e-books I have for reference purposes are not used because of students who don't have computer access at home.

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for the "op-ed" on this piece. I should have mentioned that the Breining article appeared in the editorial section of the paper, not the news section. Still, it should be factually accurate (though that seems to be less and less important as editorials go anymore.) I was actually hoping that the article would keep my wife from buying so damn many shoes if she saw the environment toll each pair took. You're messing up my plan there!

I do have a few quibbles/questions about your comments:

It is interesting that you don't dispute the "facts" of this argument - only the interpretation and importance of the facts.

Water use does not mean that water is used up. It's a little disingenuous to say that just because an ebook doesn't contain water it doesn't "use" water in its manufacture. Water evaporates, water gets dirty and needs to be treated, and most water needs to be transported, pumped and stored. So, water use does have an environmental cost whether it is abundant or scarce, "used up" or not.

The author of the article himself makes the same point about Kostigen's nonsensical view that water saved in one place helps another, dryer place.

Just because cars use more rare materials doesn't mean electronics don't use any. I don't see how the more egregious use of materials diminishes Breining's argument. I also think the author could have added the on going environmental cost of electronics charging/recharging and recycling..

I have always view Canada as more "repressed" than "oppressed." ;-)

You said that "very little of the electricity used to produce ebook readers comes from fossil fuel sources." Hmmm, in China where my iPad was made, according to Wikipedia (sources documented), 2/3rds of of the electricity produced is from coal. Last I checked that was fossil fuel.

Even your much vaunted hydro-power may be clean, but not particularity enviromentally friendly - if you ask a salmon, beaver or tree-hugger.

I think you make a great point about newspapers needing to go digital. I still prefer my newsprint, but I am sure I would get over it. One thing about print resources, unlike electronic devices and resources, is that the physical objects can be shared. I expect a library book that is read by dozens of patrons is one of the most eco-friendly things around.

I really don't think the author was writing as the puppet of any interest. My sense is that he was simply attempting raise the consciousness of readers that everything we do has some environmental costs. In the long run, I suspect that both you and he are working toward the same good goal.

Thanks again for the great alternative POV.


June 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Nice post. Keep up the good work.
residential Energy saving tips

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