Which is Greener: Buying Digital Readers or Reading Books from the Library?

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Whether it’s in a book, magazine, or newspaper, turning pages is one of life’s smallest pleasures. But with the current trend toward digital readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook, that tangible connection to a paper publication is disappearing for some bookworms.

It’s easy to see the environmental benefits of a digital reader. They save paper and ink, and cut back on the transportation used to deliver books. Selling digital files of books also reduces the number of paper copies filling up landfills. Every year, 20 million trees are used in the U.S. for book production alone, according to the Green Press Initiative. That doesn’t even include the extra 95 million trees a year for the newspaper industry.

E-reader with books
Digital readers can hold up to 1,500 in a compact, portable format. But do they take the fun out of having a personal library visible to others? Photo By goXunuReviews/Courtesy Flickr 

It’s not just paper that’s a problem for the environment. A 2009 study by the Cleantech Group suggested that books have the highest per-unit carbon footprint in the publishing industry. But do digital readers really offset this? In the same study, Cleantech Group predicted that e-readers purchased from 2009 to 2012 could prevent 9.9 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide from being released during the four-year time period.

Before you purchase an e-reader, consider its carbon footprint. Electronics productions demands copious amounts of energy and resources, and some electronics contain questionable materials such as mercury and PVC.

Most e-readers cost anywhere from $150 to $400, depending on size and model. Both the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook hold 1,500 books, making a digital reader like a portable library. Each title costs less than $10 and typically saves you at least half off of the cover price.

E-reader over shoulder
Digital readers have many green benefits, but take away the tangible quality of turning a page. Photo By Joanna Penn/Courtesy Flickr

From my personal experience, the novelty of an e-reader fades quickly. My high school provided Palm Pilots for our reading and writing assignments. Think digital readers are cool? Try reading Jane Eyre on one. While the Palm Pilot was useful for highlighting and making notes, nothing was more miserable than clicking through screen after screen of text.

Reading on a digital reader is cold and mechanical. I missed those tangible qualities of holding a book in my hand, turning the page, seeing how far along I am and checking how many pages are left in the chapter. And though it sounds silly, I missed the feeling of accomplishment when I put a completed book back on the shelf.

While e-readers are admirable for their environmental efforts, I feel as if they take away the fun of reading a book. Perhaps if you read a novel a week they would save you money and carbon emissions, but I would much rather offset my environmental impact by using the library or a used bookstore.