Books vs. eBooks – A life cycle comparison

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

Since writing the first part of the eBook mini-series, I have been interested in the life cycle assessment comparison of books and eBooks. This concept may sound simple at first, but it quickly becomes much more complicated. While a true analysis (one worthy of publishing in a scientific journal) would require months of work, data collection and analysis, calculations, and report-writing, I opted for a much simpler approach (one that may be publishable on an informal blog, such as this one).

In order to complete a very simplistic life cycle analysis, I had to take into account books and e-books. This in itself presents a significant problem when taking into account the boundary of book sales. To keep things simple, I decided that my boundary will include the first Harry Potter book. How did I choose this boundary? It was the first thing that popped into my head, since this was a very popular book that was read by a wide range of age groups. My boundary for e-books included just the Amazon Kindle. I figured that focusing in on just one, very popular e-reader would be the best course of action.

I completed my life cycle analysis on the Life Cycle Analysis Calculator, which can help you create a simple LCA using very basic information. Keep in mind that the simpler the LCA, the more uncertainty and potential errors there are. With that, I want to emphasize that this was an exercise is very simple comparison, and not one which should be taken as fact. This is more of a possible general trend, rather than scientific fact.

With some research online, I was able to make fairly simple assumptions of the Harry Potter in order to create my LCA:

  • Materials: 0.181 kg recycled paper (according to the publisher)
  • Packaging: 0.113 kg cardboard (estimate)
  • Total mass of product and packaging: 0.294 kg (according to Amazon)
  • Package volume: 0.085
  • Shipped from: North America (according to the publisher)
  • Shipped to: North America (assumption)
  • Distance traveled: 1000 km (determined by program)
  • Mode of transport: road (assumption)
  • Delivery mode:  home delivery (assumption)
  • Total use time over product life: 1 min per week, for 100 years = 5200 minutes
  • Recycled: 100% (assumption)

LCA Calculator Results for one Harry Potter book with the inputs listed above:

  • Extraction and Manufacture: 4.3 MJ of energy; 1.7 kg CO2 emissions
  • Transport: 5 MJ of energy; 0.37 CO2 emissions
  • Use: 0 MJ of energy; 0 CO2 emissions
  • Disposal: 5.9 MJ of energy; 2.4 kg CO2 emissions

Next, I did more research on the Amazon Kindle and used the following data as my inputs:

  • Materials: 0.057 kg plastic (assumption)
  • Materials: 0.232 kg electronic parts (total product mass found in product description)
  • Packaging: 0.227 kg cardboard (assumption)
  • Volume of packaging: 0.00025 m3 (wasn’t available on the website, so the dimensions of the product were used)
  • Shipped from: Asia (assumption)
  • Shipped to: North America (assumption)
  • Mode of transport: sea (assumption)
  • Distance traveled: 9100 km (determined by program)
  • Delivery mode: home delivery (assumption)
  • Use: 120 min., 5 days/wk, 4 yrs. = 124800 minutes (assumption)
  • Power use: 30 W (estimate from energy use calculator)
  • Disposal: 30% recycled (estimate)

LCA Calculator Results for one Amazon Kindle e-book with the inputs listed above:

  • Extraction and Manufacture: 490 MJ of energy; 280 kg CO2 emissions
  • Transport: 1900 MJ of energy; 140 kg CO2 emissions
  • Use: 220 MJ of energy; 90 CO2 emissions
  • Disposal: 5.5 MJ of energy; 2.2 kg CO2 emissions

When comparing the singular products to one another, the Amazon Kindle is obviously more environmentally hazardous. But it is important to apply the correct quantitative relativity to the previously stated data. A Kindle, after all, can read thousands of books, whereas the traditional method of reading would require the publishing thousands of books individually. The best way I can think of comparing these two different media is to compare their total CO2 emissions and energy usage.

Books use a total 15.2 MJ of energy and 4.47 kg of CO2. Kindles use a total 2615.5 MJ of energy and 512.2 kg CO2 emissions. This means that approximately 172 books would use the same amount of energy as one Amazon Kindle, and 115 books would produce the same amount of CO2 as one Amazon Kindle.

Greg Kozak, with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan has already completed a much more detailed life cycle analysis comparing conventional book systems and E-readers. His very detailed report and subsequent results can be found here.

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