Are e-readers greener than books?

Say you have a Kindle, or a Nook or an iPad or whichever portable, electronic e-book downloading and storage device you chose. You download books to it and read them wherever you wish. You can store hundreds of books on one. You can carry it, and its library, about very easily.

These readers are becoming more affordable and better functioning all the time. That’s the way it is with so much electronics and communication technology: capabilities go up, prices come down. Would that other categories of products followed those metrics!

But back to the relative greenness of electronic books as compared with the other kind. E-book proponents say e-readers are more environmentally friendly.

One study purported to show that if a book lover were to read even 40 books on an e-reader, he/she would be at break-even, environmentally. After that, the e-reader would be increasingly earth-friendlier with every book.

Another study said 23 books would be the  number to be “consumed” before reaching the carbon-emission advantage. After that, all to the good.

I haven’t read the actual studies, just reports of them. So I don’t know whether the studies considered everything I think would have to be considered to come up with a valid conclusion.

Is the assumption that an individual book lover buys one e-reading device and stays with it? If not, discarding and replacing devices means repeat manufacturing and additional accumulations of electronic waste, heavy metals included.

Is another assumption that those 40 or 23 books were hardcover ones? Paperbacks take much less paper, and even ink, to produce. In general, people who read on the go are more likely to tuck paperbacks into handbags or pockets.

As for economics, paperbacks cost lots less than hardcovers. Downloads cost less than either.

Cost and environmental impact of use of an e-reader include energy. Batteries. I don’t know whether or how energy costs were calculated in the studies. iPads cost more to run than Kindles or Nooks, which use Pearl Ink rather than LCDs.

Bigger e-readers use more energy than the smaller models. Bigger ones also enable easier use of larger type—and there’s a feature it would be impossible to claim for a given conventional book: a regular book is large-type or it isn’t; the user can’t adjust it.

I suspect that e-books are reserved for personal use more, or shared less, than conventional books are—the latter being shared through a family or among friends.

Ah, sharing! That brings up a topic I did not see in the articles about the comparison studies: libraries. The assumption is that people use their e-readers for reading books they otherwise would buy in conventional form. But we do not buy all the books we read! Many of us buy the occasional book, and give the occasional book, but we read dozens of books for every one we buy—we borrow those dozens from the library.

Those books are reused over and over. We could ask Janna and her team what the lifetime circulation is of a given book, but we can guess that a library book is read dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times before it must be discarded. Library editions are well protected in special jackets, and made to take lots of use. Think of the date stamps we have seen in library books!

I have used one alternative to conventional books heavily (and I use the adverb advisedly; you could check with the USPS delivery persons): Talking Books. I know those are available in commercial forms, on tape, but I have used the Library of Congress service for the blind and visually impaired. I have used the flimsy disks form, now discontinued, and the tape kind, rapidly becoming obsolete, and now the digital kind, which are the most convenient, most compact and best sounding to date. Like all recorded books formats, these require use of special players (unique speeds), which use AC power and batteries, and they have to be mailed.

I hope Talking Books will be made available to clients as downloadable e-books. That would be a relief to those aforementioned USPS delivery persons too, although they have been such good sports, and so far have refrained from sending a police officer to enforce the timely return of the polyflute totes (or “hods,” in USPS parlance).

As for e-books, as they and the e-readers are being adopted by an ever greater proportion of the reading public, are they cutting into the size of printings, and changing the publish-on-demand market, and diminishing library use?

Slowly, in this country and others, e-readers are changing libraries, schools and universities, as to book acquisition and provision. Schools are issuing texts and other materials on e-readers or apps that are installed on laptop computers issued to students. Library books are being provided by libraries loaded on e-readers, or downloaded to e-readers on premises or remotely. Regular e-book download licenses don’t allow for free sharing, but special licenses are being developed as we speak.

Those services are being implemented in public and university libraries. It occurs to me that law journals have been available online for years, by subscription.

So on the one hand, libraries are a way of multiplying the usefulness of conventional books and periodicals, keeping their “green” rating high.

On the other hand, as libraries issue e-readers and books in that form, this will accelerate the use of that book format. This will make any book a large-print one. It will make books more portable and more convenient to read. And all of that will mean the libraries of the future will be more affordable, will provide much more material, and will require less physical space.

Perhaps they will not be libraries as such, but resource centers, or libralereums (library-gallery-museum blends).