Reading Sustainably

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Reading Sustainably

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The pandemic forced a lot of us to stay at home last year, and one of the things that everyone could all do whilst at home is read. I have to say that I was not one of these people, but one of my resolutions for 2022 is to get back into reading and it got me thinking about the best way to read in terms of the environment, let’s find out! 

I have had a kindle e-reader for the past ten years, and I used it constantly when I was younger; I thought that e-readers would be the future of books, that they would all be online or on tablets and phones. However, in 2020 a total of 202 million printed books were sold (worth £1.76 billion!), in comparison to £143 million worth of e-books. So, even though both are on the rise, it seems that printed books are still well and truly the front runners, now let’s dive into their environmental impacts. 


Overall, an e-reader uses up to 100 times more greenhouse gases than if you were to produce just one book. E-readers also use toxic chemicals such as PVC when they are manufactured that can seriously affect our health as well as the workers making them. There is also a large amount of waste, which is usually just dumped in landfills, not good!  

Even though paper books may use less in this regard, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their negatives as well. Paper production risks our woodlands and forests, with upwards of 15 billion trees cut down each year to be used in the paper industry, many going towards books. Book publishing industries also use up to 153 billion gallons of water each year, a huge amount. Furthermore, producing the ink for books releases unpredictable chemicals into our atmosphere, which can aggravate smog and badly affect people who suffer with asthma and other health issues. Think of it in comparison to the printers we have in our homes, the cartridges they use already contain nasty compounds and heavy metals that can lead to soil and water pollution when left at landfill; now imagine this on an industrial scale for book printing! 

When thinking about transportation, e-readers are most likely going to be produced abroad so must travel a fair few miles to the buyer, burning through a load of fossil fuels. Printed books are a bit trickier to track, as it will depend on where and how it’s been purchased. If it was bought online, then it could travel a lot further than if it’s been bought in a local bookstore. However, it’s also said that 25-36% of all books in bookstores are returned to the publisher when clearing out stock, wasting more energy in transporting and disposing.  

Now we can get into the more interesting bit, how using each option effects our environment. An e-reader can make a big difference depending on how long you use it for; for the most part, one year of use can balance out an e-readers lifetime carbon footprint. It’s also been found that a person would need to read 40 to 50 books to equal it out, but as the climate crisis worsens, this could now be more than 100 books (I have just read just over 70 books on my kindle, so it can be easily done!). I also found that if multiple people in a household have an e-reader, then a household’s annual carbon emissions are 600-750% higher than if they if they owned or borrowed printed books. So, sharing an e-reader is a lot more eco-friendly! 

A physical book is a bit harder to measure, for example, some people may read only at night with the help of a light or bedside lamp, so that energy is used, but if someone only reads during the day, then a lot less energy is being consumed. As well as this, my family has had some books in our house for as long as I have been alive, so it’s easy to see that when properly cared for, a book has a much longer lifespan. Plus, a single book can be shared and sold with so many different people in its lifetime, reducing the need for people to purchase new. 


Lastly, we have the issue of throwing out e-readers and books. An e-reader falls into the growing problem of electronic waste, many of us just don’t know how to correctly get rid of our devices. If an e-reader isn’t properly recycled, then workers might have to take it apart by hand, exposing themselves to all the nasty chemicals I talked about earlier in the manufacturing process; or it will just sit in landfill for the next century. (Find out more about correctly getting rid of our electronics in our blog
here!) If a printed book makes it way to a landfill, the decomposition process will double the amount of climate change emissions that occurred at the manufacturing stage.  

On other option that I will quickly touch on, is audiobooks. I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks, I feel that I can’t fully immerse myself from just listening to a book, but Grace in the team uses them a lot, she prefers to close her eyes or complete other tasks while it’s playing. Audiobooks probably have the lowest carbon footprint of them all, there is no need for a new physical object as you can simply listen to them on your phone or laptop. Although audio files are probably bigger than text ones, and data storage is a whole other source of environmental damage, but it is most likely balanced out by the lack of transportation needed for audiobooks!  

All of the options have their pros and cons, but don’t let this stop you from reading! There are so many ways to reduce your contribution to the climate crisis however you choose to read: 

  • Buy used – whether it’s a book or an e-reader, buying second hand will always have a lesser impact on the environment! 
  • Use them up – if you do choose the e-reader route, use it until you cannot use it anymore! When it does come to getting rid of it, recycle it in the right way; or if you find yourself not using it as much, sell it or give it to someone who will use it. 
  • Choose recycled, eco-friendly or second-hand – picking these alternatives over brand new books will decrease your impact, World of Books is a great online bookstore selling second-hand books! 
  • Join a library – many people (me included) sometimes forget that libraries exist outside of school and university! Most libraries offer a free trial membership and sharing books throughout the community is a great way to keep them out of landfill and promotes reuse over buying new. 
  • Promote reusing – whether you prefer e-readers or printed books, an easy way to help is to use your power as a consumer to push publishers and manufacturers to consider their environmental impact. Spreading the word on these easy changes to your reading habits will of course always help as well! 

Nothing is 100% environmentally perfect and it’s down to your personal preference which one you go for! But, if you take something away from this journal entry, it’s that you can always buy less, borrow more, donate more, and maybe pop down to your local library and see what’s on offer!  


Until next time,