I’ve been doing some research. As a fan of the traditional book, and, I’ll be honest and upfront about it, not a convert to the e-reader, I’ve been feeling very skeptical about the environmental arguments that are supposed to be so overwhelmingly in favour of technology. But I wanted to be completely fair and to source some facts and figures, and consider the problem from all possible angles. It’s tricky to get hold of accurate data as pretty much everyone who contributes to the debate has an axe to grind, one way or another, but I hope I’ve found enough non-hysterical sites to back up what I’m going to put before you now.
Let’s begin with the case against paper. This site, the Green Press Initiative, which is working with publishers to be as environmentally-friendly as possible, has all the basic information. The paper and pulp industry is one of the major industries that cause environmental concern (the others include the chemical industry, the metal industry, the refineries and the power stations), partly because we use so much paper. The process requires trees, energy and chemicals, both in manufacture and distribution, all of which take their toll.
However, to be fair, we use paper in a huge number of products – offices use masses of the stuff, as do newspapers, then there are tissues and toilet paper and cardboard and packaging. I read one statistic that suggested the average internet user printed off 24 pages a day (I don’t – is there anyone out there who does?). This site had interesting information about the paper industry. I was interested in the statistic that suggested that in the US each year, 2 billion books, 350 million magazines and 24 billion newspapers are published. So you can see the kind of percentage that books take up – purely of the printed paper market. This site here suggests that paper for books takes up only 1% of the timber harvest and about 5.7% of the total paper market. We can’t after all, be told that no one reads any more and yet still find that books are the biggest offender in paper usage. Not buying newspapers would make a bigger impact on paper production than not buying books.
Given that the problems with paper and pulp production have been of some concern for a while now, a lot more is known about them and there are all kinds of initiatives being put into practice. I found lots of sites that were dedicated to improving environmental awareness around printed paper and this site is just one of them. To add to it, I should say that the fear about deforestation seems to have been debunked – I came across several sites that argued that deforestation only takes place in order to gain farming land and housing space for growing communities. And of course, sustainable farming of trees is a wholly good thing. I couldn’t find any accurate data that says how much pulp destined solely for book production comes from sustainable forests, unfortunately, but one report said that in America, 50% of book production now comes from sustainable sources. Forest land is economically viable land, safe from quarrying and mining and other forms of farming. It’s in our interests to keep using it – America now has more forest area than it did 70 years ago because of this particular aspect of the industry. One other fact to be encouraged by: the methane gas caused by paper decomposition in landfill sites has been cited as a cause for concern. But apparently most large landfills now tap methane for use as a biogas fuel – a practice that will become more widespread in the future.
So let’s look at the e-reader and e-book market. The argument for the environmental benefits of the e-reader is that it doesn’t use paper. However, there is still a manufacturing process involved, and one that draws on the metal industry and the chemical industry, and which has all sorts of problems concerning recycling. Perhaps one of the biggest difficulties we currently face concerns electronic waste – here’s the wikipedia article that covers it in full. At present, as far as I could find out, America recycles only 15-20% of its discarded electronics (2005 figures), whereas in 2006 it recycled 53.4% of paper, whilst in Europe in 2007 paper recycling rose to 64.5%. The lack of recycling poses a serious issue because of the problems of toxic waste associated with decomposing electronic components, and because of the increasing amount of electronic waste that our culture is producing. A book, once printed, will last for decades. But electronic equipment not only wears out and breaks, the whole market is geared up for planned obsolescence – in other words, to keep us spending money, new devices are launched every couple of years complete with format changes that oblige consumers to buy them.
It’s also problematic because developing countries tend to be the ones to accept and dispose of waste electronics (often illegally) and also to produce the most pollution while manufacturing them. Here’s a Greenpeace article on the problem. Environmentalists are trying to figure out what to do about the problem, but the developing world is hard to regulate at the best of times.
As the article suggests, the manufacture of electronic devices is a far from clean industry. All e-readers, and all e-books (as well as all computers, televisions, mobile phones, etc, etc) will contain a multitude of printed circuit boards as their basic components. Here’s a site that details out all the environmental concerns surrounding their manufacture. Basically, they use a lot of particularly unpleasant chemicals. Also, the components are sourced from around the globe, which raises the same old issues of distribution costs that books face (not to mention the distribution of manufactured electronic goods).
Finally, we need to consider the base materials that go into the composition of e-readers and other electrical goods. In some cases they require virgin metals, which are themselves in limited supply and threaten other beauty spots in the world (including forests) because of the need to mine for them. As demand for electronic equipment grows, so the supply of metals and other materials involved in their manufacture will rise, and without a viable recycling market fresh sources will continually need to be sought.
So all in all, I think that both books and e-readers pose environmental issues that are gaining awareness, but have yet to be solved. Arguably, the paper industry is under greater pressure to regulate at present, partly because more is known about it, partly because it is perceived as old-style industry and therefore in need of revamping, The newer, flashier technology industries have fashion and ideology on their side – not to mention economics. Demand is everything is our world these days, and manufacturers whose goods are in demand will produce them, regardless of the environmental cost. However the book market moves forward, it will do well to consider all the possible threats both kinds of manufacture pose. In balance, using the library arguably remains the most ecologically friendly thing to do.
Oh and a final thought – the biggest industrial polluters in China in 2007 included Pepsi, Yamaha, KFC and Pizza Hut. Just to remind you that there are other products that we might usefully target environmental concern towards.