Trad books – eco-greener than e-books?

I fielded an email the other day with an interesting rider. “Please consider the environment: print this email and switch off the computer!”

An interesting twist on a modern trope. And it’s not true. A laser print is hideously enviro-unfriendly – not least because it literally dumps carbon into the environment. And photocopy paper is usually made from non-renewable hardwoods, often involving violently toxic bleaching. The laserprinter itself is an e-device, non-biodegradeable and manufactured via processes that also throw toxic chemicals into the environment. It also draws lots more power, when printing, than most computers.

But as a principle, that’s something that should exercise us. We’re relentlessly pounded with it – printing to paper is enviro-hostile, it’s killing forests. Whereas the humble e-book does no such damage.

Or does it?

Lasers aren’t the only way to print. Most books are done via an older process, offset printing. And there’s a vast difference between them. Modern offset printing – if it’s done right – can be thoroughly eco-friendly. First off, it’s centralised to a single machine and factory – not distributed around everyone’s homes, like laserprinters. It’s also softer on forests. Recycled paper works just fine for a typical paperback. Even new paper is often sourced, these days, from renewable wood resources,managed forests that are re-planted as fast as they’re cut. And it’s possible to use vegetable-based inks, which means they’re biodegradable. It’s a marketing advantage for printers to be green.

So – laserprint versus offset print. Offset wins the green race, most times. But what about offset versus e-book?

Look at the e-book. It’s read on a device made from non-renewable materials, some of them brutally toxic – I’m thinking tantalum and other stuff used for micro-processors, not to mention the batteries.

Print books can also last decades, even centuries. I have books up to 100 years old and more in my collection. But e-devices, if you’re lucky, go for just five or six years before something breaks. And we usually throw them away before they’re broken because we’re urged to buy the new models.

What’s more, these things use power. In New Zealand, most of that’s made from renewable resources – hydro and wind. Elsewhere? Coal. Or nuclear. (“Let’s go swimming, the bay’s lovely and warm, and what a nice blue glow…”).

Now, some people are already thinking about the eco-impact of e-books versus offset print. But really we all should. It’s time for a proper scientific evaluation – including evaluating hidden elements as the enviro-impact of transport, which applies both to paper and to e-products.

I suspect they’ll come out similar in terms of net impact. But still, if done right, the print book you’re holding in your hand is biodegradable and made with mostly renewable resource. Whereas e-products contain un-degradeable plastics and toxic chemicals.

That doesn’t mean we should all stop buying e-books. They’re almost certainly one of several ways of the future. And I am sure the e-waste problem will get sorted. But only if we think about it – and start now. Meanwhile, I feel reasonably eco-virtuous when buying a print book. How about you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

4 thoughts on “Trad books – eco-greener than e-books?

  1. Following that logic, the even more virtuous choice is to buy a used book (recycling) or to borrow one from the library. Both of which I have done and both of which are democratic and affordable, principles I applaud.

    But as an author, I need to move the merch! You, too. You have to sell books! I’m platform agnostic (now there’s an ugly phrase!) as long as my numbers are decent. Only a very few countries (and my native Canada is one) pay authors royalties for the library use of their work. That way we all win.


    1. Thank you for taking the time to look over my blog. Indeed. I’m not opposed to e-books at all – I think it’s a key way of the future. But I believe they have a little way to go before they’re as green as offset print. Doesn’t set me against wanting as many e-book sales of my own as possible, of course!
      We’ve got a similar royalty scheme for library books in New Zealand. It was recently enshrined in new legislation and re-dubbed “Author’s Right”, which I hope will give it some hope for longevity.


  2. Hi Matthew, the environmental argument is an interesting one. But there is an even more fascinating, mostly unaired, debate over the actual differences between reading on screen and on paper (regarding the way we process information). I noticed when editing that I picked up far more errors on paper than on screen and surmised that this was because I tend to scan on screen. However when I posted on a blog about the same issue you have written about, a very interesting chap contacted me. His name is Danny Bloom, he’s a journalist and has this as a burning issue in his life. He believes that the way we process information on screen vs paper affects information processing, information retention, analysis of information and critical thinking about the information. He has even voluntarily submitted himself for brain scans to assist in a neuro-science study.

    My hunch is that information presented on screen is not processed the same way by our brains. I find it much harder to go into an imaginative realm when reading on screen and tend to forget what I’ve read unless it was particularly emotionally angsty!

    Anyway, if there is significant issue, we may all become dumber as a result! It’s a potentially critical issue and totally undiscussed. I’d love to see further investigation. Btw you can find Danny Bloom on You Tube and he’s totally up for being interviewed. x


  3. Hi, thanks for your thoughts – and very interesting. I have to agree. When the NZ government online encyclopedia was launched, they did some research into online vs paper reading and discovered that reading speeds drop around 20% on screen. Your thoughts take that a step further and sound spot on. I have trouble myself with a lot of text on screen and quite often print things off – especially books I am trying to write. Thanks again.


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