Q: I feel guilty about all the trees taken down for my reading habit. Am I better off reading books on an e-books reader?
A: Well, sonny, I'm just glad you're reading books at all. Between American Idol, video games, Web surfing and every other distraction, fewer and fewer people are buying old-fashioned books any more.
How good for the ecosystem are print texts anyway? A report commissioned by the Green Press Initiative and the Book Industry Study Group tried to get a complete picture by surveying 1,000 stakeholders including publishers, retailers, distribution companies and paper mills.
If you factor every step of production, retail and publishing along the way, as they did, turns out a single book emits nearly 9 pounds of carbon. Looking at the whole North American publishing industry, we're talking over 12 million tons every year.
If this were a detective novel, I'd lead you through a winding plot before revealing that the main climate culprit is the loss of carbon storage capacity that happens when you knock down forests to make books (responsible for 62.7 per cent of carbon emissions), then use a shitload of energy to process them into fine reading paper (26.6 per cent).
Yes, the sector is getting greener. More and more publishers are using post-consumer recycled content in their books. Even the Canadian edition of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix was printed on 100 per cent post-consumer stuff.
Eco org coalition Markets Initiative has been working with Canadian publishers on greening their ways since 2000. But the latest push actually comes in collaboration with Indigo, which has set a new benchmark for publishers to use an average of 20 per cent post-consumer content by this fall - climbing to 50 per cent after five years.
Publishers are peeved because they say they're working as fast as they can already to meet their own in-house targets. Random House, for instance, was the first major trade publisher to announce it would print 30 per cent of its titles on recycled paper by 2010. (Publishers won't be punished for not meeting the Indigo deadlines, but they won't be promoted in green campaigns.)
As it stands, digital books are winning the green race with print books. No trees are chopped, no trucks are dispatched, no stores are lit and no consumers drive to those stores - although, yes, e-readers have toxic electronic innards with a footprint of their own, and, yes, they do suck back coal and nuke power when they need to be recharged.
One life cycle assessment cited in Environmental Science & Technology found that paper textbooks created four times the greenhouse gas emissions of e-readers and sucked up 78 times the water.
New versions of e-readers use more energy-efficient electronic ink displays, which also happen to be easier on the eyes. (The fact
they're not backlit means there's no glare.)
Supposedly the display only sips power when a page is turned, so the energy consumption is pretty damn low (and way more efficient than reading on your desktop computer- one hour of this is equivalent to reading an e-reader for a half-hour, according to Swedish researchers).
Of course, it might be another 50 years before they can convince everyone that carting around a slab of circuit boards can replace the tactile pleasure of running your fingers over the pages of a book.
I'm certainly not keen on spending 10 hours a day working on a laptop, then curling up to another computer to catch up on more reading.
Even if you're not sold on reading War And Peace onscreen, you could still get your fix of trashy romance and crime novels, schmaltzy self-help books and steamy erotica and no one will be the wiser.
(By the way, ebooks.com has the biggest selection of electronic fiction and non-fiction on the Web. EcoBrain offers a good selection of e-books and MP3 audio about the environment and enviro-friendly living.)
I still say you're greenest bet is getting your books pre-loved from a library or second-hand bookstore. In fact, it's safe to say these wonderful institutions of accessible reading can actually call themselves carbon storage centres - safely harnessing a portion of the carbon that gets locked into every good book. You can buy pretty much every used book online to boot.
Though if you walk, bike or take the bus to your book source, even better.
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