eBooks Opinions: Part 2

logoNote: This post was written by SEI staff, Aida Sefic Williams.

When I wrote the first blog, I didn’t think much of  it and I did not expect a lot of comments and feedback, but that is exactly what I got! Since this seems to be a popular topic, the mini-series may be longer than initially expected. Last week, I mainly focused on the convenience factor of the eBooks, but several new points were brought to my attention.

Several positive aspects of eBooks to consider is their advantage for users struggling with reading disabilities. The eBooks, for example, are excellent for the blind population. While this segment of the population was unable to consume reading materials before, eBooks offer a tool, where the book will be read to the end consumer. This is not only an advantage for the blind, but it is also an advantage for people suffering from other reading disabilities, such as dyslexia. A negative aspect to this reading tool, however, is the ability to understand the computer’s speech. When I imagine “hearing” the eBook, my imagination immediately thinks of this tool as an audio book. Unfortunately, the eBook, rather, uses a more computerized voice, where the computer itself is reading the page rather than playing a pre-recorded reading by an actual person. Because only the technology is relied upon, there is no actual human voice reading the material. This causes a problem, since the “speech” can be very difficult to understand and takes quite some time to fully comprehend what the computer is saying.

The main point I want to consider in this debate is the economic and environmental comparisons of the two media. The economic factors of a book is the processing and manufacturing of the book, which includes cutting down and processing of trees, creating paper, printing, and binding. Once the book is printed, it is then mailed and used. The disposal of the books varies, where the book is either recycled or landfilled. All the steps have economic costs associated with them. The shipping of books, for example, varies depending on the length of travel, weight of the book, and an individual book’s popularity. A specialized text on an obscure topc will not be as widely circulated as a book on Oprah’s book club, for example. These are mainly the economic considerations of a book.

The environmental considerations include deforestation, depletion of the Earth’s natural resources, energy use and hazardous emissions during the processing and manufacturing of the book, additional materials used for the packaging and mailing of books, environmental hazards of transporting the book, and the environmental hazards of the book’s disposal.

The eBook has similar cost and environmental concerns, but there are several exceptions. Rather than using trees for the production of eBooks, more durable materials, such as metals, gold, silver copper, and plastics are used to make the electronics within the eBook functional. These materials, however, may be more expensive to obtain, not to mention the processing costs for the different materials within the new gadget. Because the number of processing steps and materials within the product increases, so does the cost of production, and the cost of recycling and proper disposal of the eBook. The transportation costs of the eBooks will probably be less, since the eBooks are much lighter than “old-fashioned” books, but the packaging materials contained in the shipping box, however, will be higher, since enough materials are needed to pad the product from any impacts experienced during transportation. In addition, it is important to consider additional materials packaged with the eBook, such as electronic chargers and instruction manuals. (One would only hope that the instruction manual would already be installed into the eBook rather than printed on paper.) The use of a traditional book has no environmental impact, unless a light is used to illuminate the book’s pages. An eBook, however, requires battery power, and it therefore uses energy throughout its life. Finally, the eBook’s disposal is much more difficult. eBooks will not be able to be passed on for generations and last for hundreds of years. Instead, these small electronics may end up in landfills, where they pollute its surrounding environment, including the soil, water, and air emissions. If the eBook is recycled, the cost of the recycling process will be much higher than that of a book, because of the complexity of the internal electronic components.

The best way to do a comparison of these factors is to perform a life cycle analysis on both products and obtain an financial and environmental cost for each product.

I am of course not the first or last to ask which reading option is more environmentally sound. A few articles comparing the two media are: Are E-Readers Greener than Books?, Cleantech Group report: E-Readers a win for carbon emissions, Are e-books an environmental choice?

More articles evaluating the environmental effects of books and eBooks can be found in SEI’s eBooks collection.

2 Replies to “eBooks Opinions: Part 2”

  1. I like your blog post. It brings an awareness to the waste that hard cover books can produce and hurt our lands over time. Also considered are the damage that ebooks generate.

  2. One thing to keep in mind about physical books is that they can be used for years and years by many different people before they are ultimately discarded. There are also crafters and artists who upcycle discarded books into art pieces or useful products (Google “altered books” for some examples).

    On the other hand, the relative shelf life of e-book readers (which is really what you’re talking about) is pretty short, especially when you consider the planned obsolescence of electronics, and the disposal issues are a much greater threat to human health.

    All of this isn’t a slam on e-books. I think in some cases, they make a lot of sense, particularly for multi-volume reference sets. I think it’s hard to beat a paper book for a read at the beach though.

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