When will books be out of date?

In our “Question of the Week” section, we regularly pursue an exciting question. Today the question is whether an ebook reader or a printed book is more ecological. Do you also have a question? Then write to us at [email protected]

It's a pleasant thing. Instead of having to fill half a suitcase with travel literature while on vacation, all you need is a virtual walk to the book portal with an e-book reader, a few clicks and hundreds of novels are in the memory and always available. The advantages of an e-book reader seem obvious: space-saving, handy and easy to use. The price of 69 euros also seems affordable.

But is an e-book reader like Amazon's Kindle or Apple's iPad more ecological than a printed book? After all, no paper is used to download the new Dan Brown crime thriller. So whoever reads digitally also protects the rainforest at the same time?

It is obvious that it is not that easy. Because an e-book reader does not use any paper. In production, the digital pocket libraries devour all the more energy and raw materials. So one thing should be clear: what is more environmentally friendly depends on how much you read. So when is the e-book reader worthwhile for the sustainability-conscious reader? A comparison between the production costs and the resulting environmental impacts of books and e-book readers provides information.

Kilos of Minerals This is exactly what the New York Times did some time ago. She has broken down the environmental cost of an iPad versus printed books.

The Apple product requires around 15 kilograms of minerals to make. On the one hand, there are rare earths that are often mined in war zones and under inhumane conditions. The main component of this immense mineral requirement, however, is made up of sand and gravel. In addition, the iPad needs almost 300 liters of water to produce, mainly for the battery and circuit boards.

For comparison: extracting the raw materials for a single book requires just 0.3 kilograms of minerals, a large part of which is sand and gravel, and nine liters of water.

Production continues. Here the iPad needs 100 kilowatt hours of energy. In the production facilities in Asia, this is usually generated by coal or oil, which corresponds to CO2 emissions of 33 kilograms. To produce a book, two kilowatt hours of energy are needed to dry the paper, a greenhouse gas emission that is 100 times smaller than that for the iPad.

Books are more ecological in production So far, the book has clearly been one step ahead. However, if it comes to transport and the entire period of use of the book and its digital version, the iPad can show its advantages. Because you read a book in maybe two to three weeks, an e-book reader you have much longer.

A book order in Amazon's central warehouse in the heart of Germany, Bad Hersfeld, causes environmental pollution that is about half the amount that was used to produce the book. If you drive to the bookstore by car every time, the burden is much higher. The emissions for buying a book in the online shop are close to zero. The proportion of energy required for the server and electricity costs for your own e-book reader is negligible.

And what if the book is finished and the e-book reader is out of date? Then the book disintegrates into its components, is composted and releases greenhouse gases that are about twice as high as those created during production. The iPad is recycled. Either professionally and using the latest processes, so that the burden on the environment and staff is low, or through dubious companies that cause damage to the environment and their employees.

E-book readers can be profitable from 40 booksIf you use the raw materials listed here, i.e. water, energy and minerals, for comparison, an e-book reader is worthwhile from 40-50 books read. If you add environmental pollution from greenhouse gases, there are around 100 books per iPad. What about taking into account the impact on people from CO2 emissions and poor working conditions in production? Then the value is roughly in the middle. The same can be seen in a calculation of the environmental friendliness of the Amazon Kindle. From the 39th book onwards, this is the more ecological alternative.

Nevertheless: This is only an exemplary list, the meaningfulness of which can quickly decrease due to changes in small factors, regardless of whether you are calculating with an iPad or Kindle. What if the current iPad 4 was manufactured much more ecologically than the iPad 1 considered here? When paper is bleached in a more environmentally friendly way thanks to new technologies and comes from sustainable forestry?

But even if you take the above number of 40-50 books as a yardstick, the book should be ahead from an environmental point of view. A study by the Reading Foundation shows that only 25 percent of Germans read one to four books a month, and more than 50 books a year read only three percent of the population. A quarter of the population never picks up a book.

If you take one book read per month as a Germany-wide average, it takes a full four years for the e-book reader to pay off ecologically. If you consider that a new version of the iPad is released every year, making the previous version out of date, this period of four years seems even longer. For example, an iPad 1 owner is unlikely to get a new e-book reader until 2014. With that, however, he would not have been particularly ecologically responsible.

An e-book reader to protect the environment is therefore usually only profitable for heavy readers. If you want it to be completely sustainable, you can use the public library with a bike ride. It couldn't be more environmentally friendly.

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