Photo via Johan Larsson via Flickr Creative Commons
According to a new poll byHarris Interactive, Americans are latching on to e-readers in a big way. Nearly 1 in 10 of us (8%) use an e-reader device, and 12% of us plan to buy one in the next year. Considering how new e-readers are, that's a significant number. But we come back to the ever-present question: Is this better for the environment than buying printed books?100 e-Books for Every e-Reader
A life-cycle analysis done earlier in the year over at Daniel Goleman looked at how many books a person with an e-reader needs to consume before the footprint of the device is as low as that of paper books. The result: "With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it's 100 books; with human health consequences, it's somewhere in between."
So a person needs to read about 100 books on their e-reader to have as small a footprint (in terms of global warming) as paper books. That's a LOT of books and a good bit of time, when you consider that the new Harris poll research shows:
"Among the e-reader users polled, 17% said they bought between 11 and 20 e-books, while 20% purchased 21 or more over the past year. By contrast, 11% of all Americans bought between 11 and 20 books last year, while 12% bought more than 21."
Pros and Cons of e-Readers Get Complicated
Those who own an e-reader do buy more books, but they don't buy 100 of them. That means an e-reader owner needs to keep their device for quite a few years to make it worth the ecological investment, at least at this point. And that's of course rough numbers. There's a lot of tangential issues that are tough to factor in, from the re-sale and recycle rate of devices (which the market is still too young to give us reliable numbers) to how much it might lighten up travelers' loads or shrink how many books are shipped thereby reducing emissions from planes and autos. And how might the numbers shift as college courses use e-readers and iPads rather than text books and other printed materials? It's too soon to tell.
Business is Booming for e-Readers
All said the business of e-readers is booming. Electronista reports that 12% of US paper readers are planning on getting an e-reader in the next year, and 15% of people aged 34-45 are likely to get one in the next six months. The interest in these electronic devices might not necessarily be a bad thing. The poll also notes, "Among those who use e-readers, 53% said they read more now than they did six months ago, compared with 18% of those who don't own an e-reader." So perhaps e-readers are making reading books cool again. Plus e-readers are indeed helping to boost literacy in areas where books are few and far between.
Still, we come back to the greenest way to read: go to the library or used book store for your reading fix. Nothing beats borrowing as the most eco-friendly method.
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