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NPR: Paper books vs. e-readers: What’s better for the climate? – ‘Digital reading seems to have a considerable eco-advantage over print…But batteries require resource-heavy mining’ – Also: ‘Certain fonts can be more climate-friendly’

By Chloe Veltman – NPR

The summer reading season is here.

Some people will opt for paperbacks because they’re easy to borrow and share. Others will go for e-readers, or audiobooks streamed on a phone.

But which is the more environmentally sustainable option? Reading’s carbon footprint is not something most people consider when choosing how to read a book. But it’s important to think about in a world facing the devastating impacts of human-caused climate change.

A complicated question to answer
Whether it’s better to read books in print or on a device is complicated, because of the complex interplay of the resources involved across the entire lifecycle of a published work: how books and devices are shipped, what energy they use to run, if they can be recycled.

Digital reading is on the rise — especially audiobooks. According to the Association of American Publishers, they now capture about the same share of the total US book market as e-books — roughly 15%. But print is still by far the most popular format.

On the one side: traditional book publishing
Traditional print publishing comes with a high carbon footprint.

According to 2023 data from the literary industry research group WordsRated, print book publishing is the world’s third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, and 32 million trees are felled each year in the United States to make paper for books. Then there’s the energy-intensive processes of pulping, printing and shipping — to say nothing of the many books that are destroyed because they remain unsold.

Traditional print publishing comes with a high carbon footprint.

“So far, these subtle, imperceptible tweaks have saved more than 200 million pages across 227 titles since September,” said Harper Collins’ senior director of design Lucy Albanese.

“By choosing e-books as an alternative to print, Kindle readers helped save an estimated 2.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions over a two year period,” said Corey Badcock, head of Kindle product and marketing.

But digital devices also come with a substantial carbon footprint, predominantly at the manufacturing stage. Their cases are made with fossil-fuel-derived plastics and the minerals in their batteries require resource-heavy mining.

The short answer to which is better: it depends
“It’s not cut and dried,” said Mike Berners-Lee, a professor of sustainability at Lancaster Environment Centre in the United Kingdom, of the comparative climate friendliness of digital versus print reading.

Berners-Lee, the author of The Carbon Footprint of Everything, said the average e-reader has a carbon footprint of around 80 pounds.

“This means that I’ve got to read about 36 small paperback books-worth on it before you break even,” he said.