How Green Was My E-Book?

Book lovers and tree huggers don’t necessarily mix. The carbon footprint created by the average printed book is sasquatchian in size compared to that made by an electronic book reader – about 23 to 1, according to a recent study. “E-readers could have a major impact on improving the sustainability and environmental impact on the publishing industry, one of the world’s most polluting sectors,” states Cleantech, issuer of the 2008 study reported in the New York Times. “In 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention wastewater that was produced or its massive carbon footprint.”

And let’s not forget the fossil fuel required to ship books from printer to warehouse to bookstore – and, for somewhere between a quarter and a third of them (the current return rate for the book industry), shipping returned stock back to warehouse and thence to pulpers or incinerators.

Does that mean e-readers are emerald green? Environmental groups beg to differ. “Consumer electronics, after all, are notorious for containing a variety of toxic materials among their circuitry,” say the Times‘s Joe Hutso. Speaking out forthrightly about the problem is Greenpeace. In a recent website posting it raised the alarm that there has been “a dangerous explosion in electronic scrap (e-waste) containing toxic chemicals and heavy metals that cannot be disposed of or recycled safely.” In countries where e-junk is dumped, “workers at scrap yards, some of whom are children, are exposed to a cocktail of toxic chemicals and poisons.

The rate at which these mountains of obsolete electronic products are growing will reach crisis proportions unless electronics corporations that profit from making and selling these devices face up to their responsibilities. It is possible to make clean, durable products that can be upgraded, recycled, or disposed of safely and don’t end up as hazardous waste in someone’s backyard.

Amazon, Sony and other manufacturers are tight-lipped about the components of their reading devices that might be contributing to this nasty stew. But Greenpeace’s assessment reminds us that the damage done by discarded e-readers could offset the good they do during their useful life. For more on that subject, read The E-Waste Problem.

Which reminds us: science fiction author M. M. Buckner brings e-waste terrifyingly to life in a brilliant environmental thriller, Watermind. A young scientist discovers that castoff electronic chips and computers have not only begun to communicate with one another in pulses, but to combine with algae and other biota to form an intelligent entity. And it’s growing very large very fast. Check it out.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.


One Response to How Green Was My E-Book?

  1. Michael Gaudet says:

    It's not easy to find hard facts about the environmental impact of the tech industry outside the United States and Europe. Looking harder at this possibility on behalf of consumers should be a bigger priority in the media.

    One of the more disturbing pieces of dirt under the carpet of the tech industry is probably that the search for the mineral Coltan (sometimes used in microchips for cell phones and small computers) has caused death and destruction in the Congo. I don't know if any of this ill-gotten mineral finds its way to the Kindle's wireless service chips, or the Sony Reader, but it would help if any ebook reader companies would make a statement that they do not. I think the public wants to trust their reading gadgets can be ethically and safely engineered and then greenly disposed of when the time comes.

    For more info about Colton, see this article at Common, and this short film on YouTube, "In Focus: Congo's Blood Coltan".

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