Living

What’s the greenest way to read a book?

Q. What’s the greenest way to be a bookworm? I only buy new books from bookstores on a rare occasion now, as I’ve figured that spending money on new books made from trees (and the rest of the process of making them) isn’t very environmentally friendly. I also see the problematic aspects of e-books read on electronics like Kindles. The best green way I’ve figured so far is to read as many books as I can from my local library and to donate books that I don’t want to them.

Katelynn M.

A. Dearest Katelynn,

Long before modern technology allowed us to share tools, cars, apartments, and even dogs, libraries pretty much owned the whole sharing economy thing. Why shell out for your own private copy of the latest Aristotle scroll when you (and all your neighbors) could read the very same one? And libraries still make a ton of sense to this day, especially if you’re the type who loves the feel of a physical book between your fingers: Who has room for shelf upon shelf of personal tomes in a microapartment, anyway? And how many times are you really going to read that copy of Fifty Shades Freed?

So it may come as no surprise to you, Katelynn, that you’ve already found the greenest way to be a bookworm, short of giving up on reading books for good (a decidedly bad idea for the world at large, I’d wager). Though producing both paper books and e-readers has an environmental impact, as we’ll soon see, the simple fact that library books potentially spread that impact out over hundreds of local readers make them the runaway favorite. It may take a village to raise a child, but it only takes a few copies of any given book to satisfy a village (provided that village is OK with a waiting list).

That’s true even though a widely cited 2009 life cycle analysis (LCA) has it that e-books are actually better for the environment, at least for voracious readers. Let’s line the two up on the bookshelf to see why.

First, we have paper books, which are made of, well, paper, which comes from carbon-sequestering trees and requires a healthy portion of water and energy to produce. The product then needs to be printed and shipped to bookstores around the country, then all too often shipped back to the publisher if it doesn’t sell. The LCA also includes the carbon emissions from books that end up landfilled (though they can be recycled). Total eco-debt, according to this LCA, is 7.46 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents for the average book, with a lighter impact for books made with more recycled paper or soy-based inks.

Next, let’s turn to the e-reader. Like all electronic gadgets, these create some impact in the mining of metals necessary to build their innards, electricity use, and their eventual disposal as tricky-to-recycle e-waste, with the largest effect coming from the production phase. The 2009 LCA estimates the average e-reader is responsible for 167.78 kg of carbon – lots more than a single paperback. But the real savings come when you start racking up the titles on that Kindle. Every e-book you download represents a paper copy you didn’t buy, so you start making up for your e-reader’s initial carbon investment fast.

But here’s where the library comes back into the picture, Katelynn: A single paper book passed from hand to hand can enlighten loads of people for the low, low price of 7.46 kg of carbon, whittling its “per-read” impact down to practically nothing. You get the same benefit on a smaller scale when you buy a used book or lend your new favorite novel to a friend. One book, endless hours of enjoyment, and no tough-to-share electronics necessary.

In short: Keep it up, Katelynn. Continue giving that library card a workout (and give yourself one too, by walking or biking rather than driving there!). You might also want to supplement your reading habit by organizing book swaps with friends or starting one of those delightful Little Free Library collections in your town – anything that keeps already-existing stories circulating.

Dewey Decimally,
Umbra