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Paper v. e-reader

| 30 Aug 2013 | 01:19

Books don’t waste paper, people waste paper

There is a whole experience to reading a book that you just don’t get with a Kindle or a Nook. First there’s the hunt for the book. Making the trip to your local independent book store, searching through the shelves, browsing the titles, opening the front cover, reading the jacket notes, actually turning the pages, taking in their distinct woodsy perfume, trying out a few pages, talking with your bookseller about the book. Then you find the perfect book, often not the one you came in for, but a surprise discovery. You take it home. You get your favorite beverage, something tasty to snack on, curl up in your favorite chair, crack the front cover, chapter one, page one, and you’re off on an adventure. As you’re reading you come across a particularly wonderful passage that you want to remember, so you get out your pencil to mark that part. Try that on your e-book. Now it’s time to go to bed, so you get that bookmark your grandmother gave you and place it between the pages ready to start up again tomorrow. Then finally you sadly come to “The End,” and you close the back cover, sit back and savor the story, the characters, and suddenly it occurs to you that you know exactly who would love this book as much as you do, so you pass it on – something else you cannot do with an e-reader.

That’s an important thing to remember about books. You can recycle them, whether you pass them on to a friend, donate them, or simply put them in the recycle bin to be deinked and reduced back to pulp for making new paper products. While it is true we waste an enormous amount of paper and deforestation is a real issue, in my view, books don’t waste paper, people waste paper.

Reading a book is also a completely private interaction between you and the pages in your hand. Did you know that your e-reader can be used to track what you are currently reading and what your reading habits are? Companies can restrict the printing of books and arbitrarily modify the material on your devices without notifying you. On e-readers, you really can’t buy a book, you merely rent or lease it. While a company may promise you can keep the book for always, should they go out of business the e-books will go away with them.

E-readers have their place. I wish they had been invented when I was going to grad school. All those big text books and endless articles that I had to have copied, that alone would have saved an entire forest. When it comes to books, I want a real one. On a recent flight to Florida I noticed my co-passenger was unable to use their device until we were over 10,000 feet, while I sat back and enjoyed my book.

Thomas Roberts

Owner, Ye Olde Warwick Book Shoppe, Warwick NY

Avid? Go electronic

A few years ago, e-readers began popping up in the marketplace. Now—from Kindle to iPad to NOOK and beyond—they’re literally everywhere. Modern, digital, and reusable, these devices would seem more environmentally friendly than your “old-fashioned” paper books…but are they?

There remains a certain wholesomeness and tactile value to “real” books—touching the paper, turning the pages, and finally closing the back cover when you’re through. I’ll admit I miss that; but are books becoming a thing of the past? Is the e-reader really the smarter, greener way to read? My colleague, “Mr. Green,” at Sierra Magazine explored this dilemma and came to a surprising conclusion, which I will reveal momentarily.

Before we get to the conclusion, though, it’s important to recognize that this dilemma must be solved according to the basic tenet of sustainability: life cycle analysis. In other words, we must consider each product in its entirety: from production to distribution to use to disposal. We must consider not only the trees needed to make paper versus the manufacturing of electronics products, but also the shipping costs, fuel, and ultimately, the energy needed to recycle these materials at the end of their days.

Mr. Green’s conclusion was this: Unless you’re a seriously avid reader, the energy required to manufacture and then dispose of an e-reader is probably greater than what’s needed for a traditional book. Here is the bottom line:

• If you read 40 or more books per year, an e-reader is the right choice for you.

• If you only read occasionally (fewer than 40 books per year), it’s probably better to stick to “regular” books.

Similarly, TerraPass, a carbon offset business, cited a study whose authors said that e-readers are the greener choice only if you read more than 23 books per year. The New York Times also explored this subject, and came up with a slightly different conclusion. They found that the e-reader significantly outperforms paper books in carbon emitted when you purchase three books a month over four years.

Because this “green” subject remains in its early stages, we’re still discovering new data and different points of view. Overall, however, I’m all for encouraging our next generation to read more and watch less—be it through paper or electronic means.

And if we’re REALLY talking sustainability, the best answer is skipping the brand new books and expensive e-reader and opting for something truly green: a library card! Stop by your local library; get connected with your community; borrow a few books; finish them all; then simply return ‘em and repeat.

Jennifer Schwab

Chief sustainability officer, Sierra Club Green Home