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Summary:

Many people use the iPad to replace a physical library of paper books, mostly because it’s very convenient to do so. But is it also better for the environment? A recent report considers the ecological effects of e-books in general, and specifically addresses the iPad’s impact.

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Many people use the iPad to replace a physical library of paper books, mostly because it’s very convenient to do so. But is it also better for the environment? A recent report considers the ecological impact of e-books in general, and specifically addresses the iPad’s impact, too.

Carbon Footprint

The report, prepared by non-profit organization the Green Press Initiative (PDF), takes into account the average lifecycle of e-reading devices, and even accounts for the general impact of the iPad (in terms of the production process used in making one) on human health when compared to that of the average book. Using Apple’s own published environmental report regarding the iPad (it’s the only e-reader / tablet maker that even publishes one), Green Press Initiative determined that an iPad is responsible for 130 kg (287 lbs) of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions over its average lifetime. The average printed book, by contrast, is responsible for only 8.85 lbs. So, an iPad owner needs only download 32.4 books instead of purchasing paper copies in order to reach the break even point when it comes to carbon footprint.

Resources and Human Health

But carbon emissions aren’t the only consideration when it comes to environmental impact. The report goes on to note that the iPad’s construction is roughly equivalent to between 40 and 50 books when it comes to fossil fuel, water and mineral consumption, and that a single e-book has 70 times the impact of a printed book on human health, owing to particulate matter resulting from energy use and the book’s production.

Known Unknowns

The report acknowledges that there are a few factors where the ultimate impact of the iPad and other e-reading devices isn’t yet known. These include energy consumption that occurs during the device’s use stage, which is obviously zero for paper books. It does point out that in some cases, even using a light while reading uses more energy than an active iPad, which uses about 3 watts when used specifically for reading e-books. Server storage energy use costs are another potential factor, but again the report stresses that this impact is likely relatively small and spread out across a large number of users.

E-waste and recycling are the biggest question marks when it comes to e-readers. Books can be recycled, but it’s not clear how many actually are. E-readers can also be recycled, but it’s a more difficult process and in some cases, recycling simply means a device handed down to less developed parts of the world for precious material recovery, with the remainder discarded in traditional landfills. This is by far the most difficult and nebulous cost to account for.

How Many Books?

In the end, the report suggests a sliding scale with ranges wherein the iPad and other e-readers might be more green than their paper counterparts. The more printed books you offset with an e-reading device, the better. At around the 30 to 70 book mark, the report estimates, is where the break-even point lies in terms of general environmental impact, and it’s between 60 and 90 titles where it starts to become better to buy e-books than paper ones. Matt Schneider, a researcher and graduate student working in digital and print culture, points out that the national average for books read per year in Canada is about 20. In the U.S., it’s is only around 9 (or 15 if you don’t include the Americans that read zero books). At these rates, it’s probably better for the environment that the general population continue to use paper books, while heavy readers move to digital formats.

The Green Press Initiative also points out, however, that since the iPad is a multi-purpose device, its environmental impact is defrayed over a number of activities, not just e-reading. Also, the impact of downloading an e-book for someone who already owns the iPad for other purposes is relatively small; so in fact it may be even more of an environmental do-gooder than even the Kindle, which has lower power requirements but is also generally a single-focus device.

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  1. I’m not arguing their stats, but this doesn’t take into account the fact that most people with iPads would have one anyway, with or without the ebooks. Some of the report seems to be comparing the iPad to books as if its an either/or prospect. People would have one anyway, so having ebooks on them is just a bonus. When you factor all of that in, it seems extremely “green” to me.

  2. It also ignores Libraries and the used book market. The ability to pass a physical book off is one of it’s greatest advantages. Though judging by other digital copy right problems passing e books around legally or otherwise won’t be a problem.

  3. It hurts my eyes to read with back lighting for serious reading, especially low light situations. While it is annoying to read with back computers in the sunlight. So for reading books it is kindle or paper.

  4. Lots of ivory tower folks who never experienced living near or working in a paper mill. So, I guess they wouldn’t think of how that process affects the workers, neighbors, environment.

    It sucks big time.

  5. hauntedmail Friday, April 8, 2011

    Ebook reading is cool on a pixelq device
    “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NL1nozPAQ1g”

  6. I guess many iPads would be bought anyway, even if ebooks were not available on them.

    Since they’d be bought anyway, the green impact of the iBook production, itself, should not be charged to ebook reading.

    The only chargeable green impact is the power used while reading. As the report states, this is negligible.

    If 50% of iPads are bought w/o regard to ebook reading, iPad’s green contribution is very large.

  7. The folks who wrote this article never visited a paper mill What about the chemical usage to produce paper, what about transporting logs from Siberia to produce paper, what about the polution to lake Baikal in Russia hapening today to produce paper. This report is plain rubish

  8. The problem with the Green Press Initiative’s analysis is that they refer to the environmental impact of e-book distribution but not traditional book distribution. Read more here – http://bit.ly/fcOVv0

  9. This is the key statement. Paper books do NOT use zero watts, if most people, much of the time, are reading with a 60-100 watt light bulb on. With an iPad at only 3 watts, the break even energy footprint point is well below the 30 or so books mentioned. In fact, every time you read with a paper book with a light one, you’re wasting energy and hurting the planet compared to the iPad!

    “These include energy consumption that occurs during the device’s use stage, which is obviously zero for paper books. It does point out that in some cases, even using a light while reading uses more energy than an active iPad, which uses about 3 watts when used specifically for reading e-books”

    Clearly, it’s more than “in some cases”.

    In any event, though, from an environmental pollution standpoint, letting a paper book decay will be much more benign than battery disposal!

  10. They’ve also neglected newspapers and magazines

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