Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Ethical living through electronic books

Paper books come at an environmental cost. Switching to electronic readers could be a much greener way to enjoy reading

By Naomi Alderman  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

I never used to believe in e-books. How could an electronic device hope to replace the beauty of the printed book form, the elegance of its design, the tactile sensation of turning the pages and the smell of good-quality paper? I love libraries. I love bookshops. I love the scent of the leather bindings and the musty pages.

The mere presence of a large number of books induces a profound sense of wellbeing in me.

And this is all still true. But recently I’ve been intrigued by the idea that e-books could be a greener way to distribute the printed word. And since I started using one, my position has begun to evolve.

Printed books are not what they were — many are cheaply produced, smell peculiarly of chemicals and bow or split before you’ve even finished reading them. Many of my parents’ books, paperbacks bought in the 1960s and 1970s, are now unreadable: The glue in the spines has turned to brittle flakes and the pages are yellowed, falling out as soon as you open them. I always thought I’d keep my books forever, but it begins to be clear that they, like so many other products, have a built-in obsolescence.

Meanwhile, my iLiad e-book reader is sleek and beautiful. It’s a pleasant object to hold and with its useful page-turning bar, one-handed reading is simple. The matt non-backlit screen is easy on the eye, the design is elegant and unfussy and it is simple to make notes in the text using the stylus or to make the font larger or smaller. Perhaps my attachment to the physical form of the book was a little childish. After all, the words are the same whatever format I read them in and surely it’s the words that matter.

It’s been striking to me how many book-lovers can immediately see the use of an e-book reader. I’ve taken my iLiad to writers’ gatherings, book launches and meetings with editors. The very people I’d have expected to resist it — bookish people, who both read and write a lot — are the people who have looked at it, played with it, cooed over it and said decisively, “I need one of these.” If these people take to the e-book reader with ease, the future of books may indeed be electronic.

And will this be a good thing for the environment? It’s hard to judge. A report by the US book industry study group last year found that producing the average book releases more than 4kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — that’s the equivalent of flying about 30km. Then there’s the cost of warehousing and transport to consider and the waste and toxic chemicals produced by paper mils.

What about the electronic alternative? While the digital books themselves have a relatively low impact — recent figures suggest that transferring one produces around 0.1g of carbon dioxide — there are other factors to take into account. Charging the reader and turning virtual pages all have an energy cost, as does turning on your computer and downloading a file. Even so, the balance may still favor the hi-tech alternative. A 2003 study by the University of Michigan concluded that “electricity generation for an e-reader had less of an environmental impact than paper production for the conventional book system.”

The heaviest burden, though, will be in making the reader itself. If one were to buy an e-book reader, then keep it for 30 years, the impact would be small. But many electronic devices don’t last that long and with the constant advances in processing power and functionality, it’s unlikely that we would want to keep a single e-book reader as long as we might keep a book.

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