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Eco-friendly reading: paper books versus the e-reader.

What would be better for the environment: reading a paper book or reading books on an e-reader? Read this example of a life cycle assessment comparison.

Have you ever considered the environmental impact of your reading habit? We wondered what would be better for the environment: reading a book in the traditional way on paper or reading the modern way; from an e-reader. We quantify the environmental impact of these product systems by means of a Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA. In this article, we present the results of this LCA study. You can download the full Life Cycle Assessment example report based on ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 at the bottom of this article. 

The e-reader and the reading books are analysed over the entire life cycle, from cradle to grave. To compare these two alternatives, it is important to clearly define system boundaries and  choose the same functional unit. You can of course read more than one book on a single e-reader. Hence, the impact of the e-reader’s production is divided over the amount of books you read on it.

For this LCA study, we’ve chosen a real bookworm, or maybe a student. We assume this person reads two books a month with an average of 300 pages; 24 books per year. Furthermore, we assume that an e-reader has a product lifetime of five years. In total, 120 books are read in five years. This makes our functional unit: reading 120 books read over the course of five years.

Printed books: 120 single life cycles

Reading a paper book starts with the book's production. Paper books are printed using industrial printers, which consume electricity and ink. After production, they are transported by truck to a bookshop in the Netherlands. From the bookshop, we assume the books are delivered to the end user’s home in a small transport van.

The use phase of a book is free of emissions. There is simply no material or energy required to read a physical book. After the book has been read, the book is placed in the wastepaper basket together with the packaging. Because the paper is recycled at the end of its life cycle, we save new wood chip production, as raw material for new paper pulp. This avoids environmental impact in the production of a new book.

Because the time horizon of this analysis is five years and consuming 120 books, this entire process is repeated 120 times.

Is an e-reader actually more environmental friendly?

The LCA of an E-reader

The e-reader’s system starts with the materials for the device itself. The production of e-readers mainly takes place in China. For this case, we assume that production took place in Shanghai. From China, the e-reader is packed and transported by boat to the port of Rotterdam, after which it is further distributed by truck to a store. After placing an order by the end-user, the e-reader is transported to the home address by a delivery van.

The use of the e-reader consists of two parts. First, the device needs to be charged before being used. An average 1,500 mAh battery of an e-reader consumes about 345 Wh for a full battery. With one full battery, you can read for about two weeks. To read two books a month, the battery must be charged twice a month. This has a relatively large environmental impact because the Dutch electricity mix is for a large part fossil-based. After the service life of five years, the e-reader is deposited and processed according to standard waste disposal for electronic waste.

Comparing the environmental impact of our books and the e-reader

When we compare reading 120 paper books with 120 e-books read on an e-reader, we see that the paper books have a higher environmental impact for most impact categories (Figure 1). The e-reader only has a higher impact in terms of resource use, minerals and metals and freshwater eco-toxicity (inorganic).

Since we would like what is the most climate-friendly way of reading, we specifically zoom in on the impact category of climate change. From this, we can conclude that buying and reading 120 books results in greenhouse gas emissions of 153 kg (GHG emissions). The similar number of books read on an e-reader results in GHG emission of 52.3 kg. GHG emissions are all emissions to air of gases that contribute to climate change, such as CO2 and methane.

To see where the tipping point is in terms of GHG emissions in our life cycle assessment, we also have to consider that an e-reader is charged per book. When someone reads more than 25 books in five years, it is more favourable in terms of GHG emissions to read these on an e-reader. If someone reads fewer than 25 books in five years, paper books have a lower impact.

Comparing the impact of our physical books and the e-reader over 27 impact categories.

Eco-friendly reading through an LCA report

In short, if you read more than 25 books in five years, you can read environmentally friendly with an e-reader!

We have assumed in this case, however, that a book is only read once and then ends up in the rubbish. Some people prefer reading a paper book compared to an e-reader. To lower the impact of your paper book reading, it is best to pass a book on to someone else after use so that it can be reread. Using neighbourhood libraries can ensure that books are read more than once. This avoids the need to produce new books and thus saves on emissions!

Do you prefer to use an e-reader to read books? Then try to read as many books as possible on your e-reader and buy as few physical books as possible. Start with eco-friendly reading!

Download the full example LCA report below on the environmental impact of books versus E-readers
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