The battle, no doubt, will rage on for some time over which is greener, e-books or the printed stuff. A new item of evidence, however, has been submitted: a report by the Cleantech Group has concluded that in a spine-to-spine lifecycle analysis, the Kindle 2 outperforms physical books. The study, combining previous research, finds that a Kindle is responsible for 168 kq of CO2 over its lifetime. Replacing three physical books a month for four years with Kindle books will save 1,074 kg of CO2. The less voracious will still break environmentally even halfway through their 23rd book, the point at which the impacts of the Kindle's existence are offset.
The Cleantech Group's report is just another piece of the puzzle, and much remains to be revealed. One thing we don't yet know is if the market for used books was included in the number crunching. Author of the report, Emma Ritch, does note that the disposal of the device is factored in, but we don't yet know what is being assumed (how many years before disposal, does it end up in Amazon's purported recycling program?). Of course the comparison does include the energy required to charge the device, as well as the demands of the servers that host the e-book files.
Studies have been published as early as 2007 on the respective eco merits of paper, computer, or e-book reading, but we're just now seeing the market for e-book readers explode. Amazon's Kindle leads the market with Sony close behind, but Barnes & Noble, Hearst, and many others are charging in, and Google has already made thousands of books available in the open .epub format.
Many are pointing to e-books as the greener choice, a handful of universities are already embracing pilot programs for electronic textbooks, and we've even seen politicians brandishing the Kindle as a symbol of sustainable education. TreeHugger has spent some time trying to speculate on the impacts of things such as a spike in the production of e-ink, and the overall merits of the medium.
But if all this lifecycle mumbo jumbo is making your eyes cross, may we suggest building a cozy campfire, tossing in some Kindling, and reading a nice used copy of 1984. Let's see Bezos take that one away from you.