Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Paper versus Electronic: the real secret of "green reading"

If you came here looking for some good, green books to read, check out our "review" page; today's post is not about what to read.  (Neither, by the way, is it about whether to read: we assume that reading is a good thing because it tends to make people smarter; and we'll need a lot more smart people if we are ever going to solve the world's problems).

Yes, reading is good, but there is a price to pay for most things in life--even the good ones.  Today we'll look at the environmental impact of the written word. 

Most of us grew up reading things printed on paper.  And environmentally concerned people usually agree it's bad to waste paper, because wasting is bad and because paper making--even recycled paper making--requires some trees and a lot of energy.  Most also agree it's best to re-use paper whenever possible and to recycle it otherwise--and that whenever possible, we should avoid using any paper at all

But is "paperless reading"  really "green reading," as many assume? It is true that paper making requires large, foul-smelling factories and dead trees or other plants. But the paper itself is recyclable and bio-degradable.    And unless you are curling up at night with a book written on stone tablets or sheet metal, your paperless reading is almost certainly going to require electronic devices, power-hungry computer servers, and other things made of non-renewable resources that will eventually end up buried in the ground.

What to do? A thorough analysis of these questions requires a research team that we don't have a budget for. So we've outsourced the job to the net.  We'll look at three paperless alternatives to see how they compare to traditional methods of reading: on-line reading, electronic books, and electronic newspapers.

On-line reading: free with cost.
Since we did the research for this post on-line, it makes sense to start with on-line reading.  After paying the cost of our internet connection, going on-line is typically "free."  But of course, the internet uses a lot of energy.  The question is, how much?  Being a virtual dhaba, we'd like to think we have a limited ecological footprint.  But the truth, according to this article in the New Scientist, is not quite so rosy.  James Clarage looks at one part of the internet, Google:
"The term search "engine" is apt. Searches are powered by millions of computers packed into warehouses, all wired together to function as a single system. Like any system, it obeys the laws of thermodynamics, and therefore wastes energy."
OK, but how much energy does Google use? A large amount, according to Clarage:
"IT research firm Gartner estimates Google's data centres contain nearly a million servers, each drawing about 1 kilowatt of electricity. So every hour Google's engine burns through 1 million kilowatt-hours. Google serves up approximately 10 million search results per hour, so one search has the same energy cost as turning on a 100-watt light bulb for an hour."
Of course the internet is more than just Google. And it takes a lot of google searches to add up to an hour of AC use or even a drive through your city, to say nothing of an airline flight. Certainly there is a great benefit to having information widely available at a relatively low cost.  But these numbers do suggest that the "information superhighway" may be like a highway in more ways than Al Gore imagined when he popularized the term.   Both kinds of highways, as it turns out, contribute to more than just movement of people, goods and ideas; they contribute to pollution as well.

E-Book Versus Book:
So what about e-books? Well, I've never actually used one to read, and I can't imagine they'd be as much fun as an old fashioned book.  Still, a lot of people like their Kindles and iPads.  For an interesting discussion on that, see what Bhagwad has to say, here.  As for the actual ecological costs of e-books versus traditional books, a recent piece in the New York Times looked at the numbers in detail to answer the question, "how many volumes do you need to read on your e-reader to break even?"  Here are their conclusions:
"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...All in all, the most ecologically virtuous way to read a book starts by walking to your local library."
So I guess that's what you call a split decision.  Still, I confess I did not expect e-books to do so well.

Dead tree newspapers vs. on-line ones
Not surprisingly, there are no simple answer to this question either.  An American columnist at Slate Magazine concluded that on-line newspapers are probably a little bit greener than newsprint--but not by much.  And if newspapers were more effectively recycled--as they almost certainly are in India--then he conceded that those results might be different.  You can read the entire analysis hereWired Magazine, on the other hand, came to the opposite conclusion--they argued that the print version of their magazine was greener than the on-line version.
To put things in perspective, it doesn't seem to make a huge difference how you read--which is good news.  And maybe we are asking the wrong question.  Instead of comparing different kinds of reading, perhaps we should be comparing reading to TV watching or movie going. In that comparison, reading comes out ahead on many fronts: TV's suck as much energy as computers, and TV watching has been shown to go hand in hand with poor school performance. Reading doesn't just improve performance in school, but it seems to have psychological benefits as well.  I could hyperlink a lot of research about reading in adults, too, but you don't need me to do that, because if you've gotten this far, you have common sense and the ability to make reasonable inferences. 

So find a good book and read it, however you want to read it, and don't feel guilty.  Then pass it on to a friend. That's the real secret of green reading!


  1. Interesting points. We should be aware of the implications of our choices.

    With regard to ebooks vs paper books - I gave up paper books in 2004. I've had three reading devices since then. I can't even imagine the number of books I've read in that time.that

    For a little over a year now, I've been reviewing every single book I read for documentation purposes. Last year I read 45 books on one device. So assuming that rate, I've read 270 books till now.

    And the cost is fixed. With the Kindle, the only extra cost is the charging. So everything from that point on is paper saved.

  2. I forgot to give you this hilarious link. It made me pee my pants :D

    Paper manufacturer urges people to print more:


  3. @Bhagwad, thanks for the link! If everyone used their e-reader like you, we'd have less paper waste AND more interesting, intelligent people! Reading is one of the best habits there is.

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