Is the Kindle Good for the Environment?

I posted this on my other site a long time back, and thought it was good enough to repost here.

The Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite.

The Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite.

Having just picked up my third Kindle, I started to wonder what was the environmental impact of this device. Was I helping mother nature by saving trees, or costing her in some other way?

I decided this should an easy enough question to put to rest. What are the environmental impact of producing a paper book? What are the environmental impact of the electronics that go into a kindle?

A short internet search shows its not really that cut and dried. Luckily for me plenty of other people have wondered the same thing and done a lot of footwork on this one. There are a number of environmental costs we would have to look at for both styles of reading and they don’t always overlap in ways that make comparison easy.

When it comes to production, the cost we hear about most is carbon footprint. The carbon footprint is how much CO2, a harmful greenhouse gas, is produced in the production of the product. High tech industry is heavy on the CO2 consumption and the Kindle weighs in at approximately 370 lbs of CO2. (infographic here.)

Paperbacks produce CO2 as well, mostly because they are made of paper and paper production = loss of trees. Since trees help convert CO2 to oxygen, they are an important piece of the greenhouse effect and possibly our greatest hope of stopping it. The average print book costs about 17 pounds of CO2.

Before the old fashioned book lovers start to gloat, remember these are production costs. Once produced that’s it. One Kindle equals approximately 22 books in terms of environmental production costs.

Once the Kindle is produced, there are shipping costs.There are energy costs to run the device. Amazon’s servers suck a lot of juice and require a lot of environmental costs to operate. There is a huge infrastructure of electronics maintaining the wifi networks that the ebook zip down to your device. All of that has to be weighed against the Kindle’s environmental scorecard.

A paperbook too has it’s distribution and maintenance costs, however. They have to be shipped around the country to warehouses and then retailers. The trucks that haul them require diesel or gasoline. The warehouses have to be heated and cooled. Brick and mortar stores are not without their energy and environmental consumption.

These are the costs that are tricky to compare. After all Amazon sells paper books as well as ebooks. How much server space is taken up with tracking physical inventory and how much with ebooks? How do we divide up those costs? Storing ebooks on a server has a cost, but so does running a huge warehouse of physical books.

In the end though one thing is clear, the long game goes to the Kindle. Every paper book produced has a relatively stable environmental cost. Ebooks on the other hand, have a diminishing cost.

The cost of maintaining a server has to be divided by the number of books on it and the number of other uses that server has. Ebooks are really nothing more than text files, so many novels only take up a few kilobytes of space on a server. The more books on a server the lower the cost per book, and they can store thousands of titles in virtually no space. Increasingly, ebooks are only a fraction of what Amazon does. They have video services, they sell print books and many other items. The cost of maintaining the wifi and distribution network is similarly shared over all users and uses.

The same logic applies to the device itself. Once produced and in the consumer’s hand, the environmental cost of a Kindle is a fraction of the initial cost of the device. The cost per book depends on how many books are on the device, and even the most basic devices are capable of holding thousands of ebooks on them.

The most important factors, then, are personal. How many books do you read? How often do you upgrade your devices? The more you read, eventually the cost per book tips in favor of the Kindle. It’s really just a matter of when.

Like most electronics, the Kindle will eventually break down but there’s no real easy answer to how long one will last. There are still first generation devices that are running fine. My first generation Kindle broke. It was an accident, but accidents happen. A very rough ballpark would say the average consumer will be able to get two to three years out of a kindle easily.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

Even though he is leery of anyone trying to present hard numbers or a glib one kindle = x number of books, environmental journalist Daniel Goleman did go on record with this ballpark figure, it takes over a hundred ebooks to make the kindle an environmentally friendly choice. Will you read more than a hundred books in the next two to three years? If so the Kindle is the most environmentally friendly way to do so. If not paper might be a better choice.

Goleman offers this figure critically. However, looking at my kindle I have 97 books on it currently, 70 more in my archive and a second owner in mind, so for me it’s clearly a good choice. The relatively low cost of ebooks, ease of purchasing and the relative ease and size of most ereaders mean that on average those who own ereaders will buy more books and read more often. That makes me think that for most avid readers an ereader is a good choice.

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