Are e-books greener than paper books?

Published Feb 19, 2010

Environmentally concerned customers may continue reading paper books. A report by the Centre for Sustainable Communications shows that there are no good reasons to claim that e-books have a better eco performance. Only if you read more than 33 e-books during the lifetime of an electronic reading device it becomes beneficial from a climate point of view.

Clara Borggren and Åsa Moberg from the Centre for Sustainable Communications present a screening life cycle assessment comparing three different ways of distributing and reading books: a paper book purchased in a traditional bookshop, a paper book purchased in an online store and an e-book read on an electronic reading device.

“There is a common assumption that e-books are limiting the burden on the environment. But our results indicate that there is no substantial difference between an e-book read on a reading device and a paper book. The reading device has to be used quite frequently. With the assumptions made in our study you have to read more than 33 e-books containing 360 pages on a newly purchased reading device for it to become superior from a climate perspective” says Åsa Moberg.

A paper book’s environmental impact is mainly caused by the production of paper. An e-book’s environmental impact on the other hand depends primarily on the production of the reading device. The paper book’s environmental impact is substantially decreased by minimized personal transportation when buying the book. The key factor for decreasing environmental impact per book read is simply to let more people read the book.

What should be done to make reading devices more attractive from an environmental perspective?

Reading devices need to become multifunctional and allow for reading of newspapers, books and other documents. In that way the environmental impact of the reading device is spread across several uses. In addition, the e-book really needs to replace paper books and other information carriers. “You remember what happened to the paperless office that never came about,” Åsa Moberg quips. Moreover, producers of reading devices are challenged to minimize the use of toxic and rare substances in production.

The book which forms the basis of the study is a hardback novel with 360 pages. The study measures the environmental impact for each book that is read and applies to Swedish conditions.

Currently, the report comparing paper books and e-books is only available in Swedish (SeePappersbok och elektronisk bok på läsplatta).

For more information, contact Åsa Moberg (asa.moberg@abe.kth.se) or Clara Borggren (clara.borggren@abe.kth.se).

Top page top