Is It More Eco-Friendly to Buy Books or Read Ebooks?

Reading is a popular hobby and it’s changed a lot in the past 20 years. Now we can choose from many different formats for our favorite books, from print to digital and even audio.

Other than struggling to find space for more books, many readers wonder about the environmental impact of their book hoarding. Switching to eBooks can cut down on the number of bookshelves you need to put up, but can it also help you be more eco-friendly?

Reading eBooks can be more eco-friendly than buying print books, especially for people who read a lot, but it isn’t the only option out there for cutting down your bookish carbon footprint. The important thing to remember is to always look for second-hand buys, whether you’re looking for a new book or an e-Reader to get started digitally.

Is reading eBooks really better for the environment than physical books?

There are a number of benefits of reading eBooks for the environment that physical books just can’t compete with.

The production of eBooks compared to print books:

  • Cuts down on the number of trees cut down to make books
  • Reduces carbon emissions associated with the printing industry
  • Reduces electricity consumption associated with the printing industry
  • Pollutes less
  • Saves space taken up in storage and at home
  • Reduces landfill waste
  • Saves resources like water used for printing books

It’s important to remember that eBooks don’t eliminate the carbon footprint or resource usage associated with the printing industry. eBooks still need energy to be produced and stored, though it’s harder to track, though this is still only a sliver of the environmental impact that print books have.

The environmental impact of eBooks grows when you take into consideration the manufacturing of e-Readers. However, because e-Readers will not be produced at the same magnitude as books, it’s not easy to compare their impact.

Another important factor in reading eBooks is that e-Readers aren’t the only devices that can read eBooks. Apps for cell phones and tablets can be used to store and read eBooks, which further cuts down on the emissions released in manufacturing e-Readers.

Are books or eBooks more environmentally friendly?

Comparing the environmental impact of books and eBooks isn’t as clear-cut as you’d like, but there are some important considerations to make.

Overall, eBooks are more environmentally friendly because the resources can be reused. e-Readers and apps allow us to read and store multiple eBooks without buying a new device each time, though the electricity usage and electrical components have their own carbon footprint.

It takes approximately 24 trees to make one tonne of paper, and the UK alone uses over 9.9 million tonnes of paper each year. That’s over 237 million trees used to supply paper to the UK!

In 2020, 942 million books and eBooks were sold in the US in just one year. The digital publishing market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.4% from 2021 to 2028, according to Zippia.

Currently, eBooks only make up 9% of the revenue, however it’s important to note that eBooks are priced lower than print books. In 2020, 191 million eBooks were sold, though it’s not mentioned whether this is just in the US or across the world.

Using an e-Reader can significantly decrease your carbon footprint because you can use it for many books over time, reducing the number of trees needed to make paper by the hundreds.

However, the manufacturing of e-Readers has an unknown impact on the environment, so it’s always best to make the most of your current e-Reader, buy second-hand or refurbished devices, or use devices you already have like your phone or tablet.

Ultimately, eBooks are more environmentally friendly than books, but that doesn’t mean you need to stop buying books.

Is it eco-friendly to buy books at all?

While books contribute to deforestation and have a larger carbon footprint than their eBook equivalent, you can still buy them. Just buy them second-hand or borrow them from libraries!

There are many eco-friendly sources of print books, including:

  • Thrift stores and charity shops
  • Book swaps
  • Libraries
  • Free lending libraries
  • Online marketplaces
  • Amazon ‘Used’ books

More publishers than ever are using print-on-demand services, where books are only printed when someone purchases them. This is more eco-friendly because publishers are only printing as many of them as are ordered, ensuring that extra books aren’t destroyed or sent to landfill.

Is e-Reading environmentally more sustainable than conventional reading?

Using an e-Reader or using your phone or tablet to read eBooks is ideal for being more sustainable because you’re reducing how many books are cut down. While e-Reading isn’t for everyone, reading a digital book means it only takes as much storage and electricity as you need it to.

According to a 2021 review, the “environmental impacts of printed and digital media depend on the usage rates and a number of readers of both types of media” as well as other parameters and behaviors.

The review sought to measure the environmental impact with research into the energy consumption for creating and using e-Readers against the energy cost of paper production, printing, and transportation associated with print books. While there were gaps in research, the review found that there were inconsistent results with too many variables.

Another review in 2022 found that their results “indicate clearly that e-reading can only be environmentally sustainable at very high usage rates, as manufacturing of e-readers has relatively high environmental impacts”.

Based on this, it’s reasonable to assume that if you consume both paper and eBooks then you may be less sustainable than picking just one. It also suggests that more voracious readers are more sustainable for reading eBooks compared to print books, because the more you read eBooks the smaller the carbon footprint.

Without more research, it’s important to look at what works for you. If you’re buying lots of brand new books, switching to an e-Reader is more sustainable than conventional reading, but if you’re looking at second-hand ones or borrowing from libraries then you’re being more sustainable without an e-Reader.

Are e-Readers sustainable?

While the environmental impact of manufacturing an e-Reader is larger than producing even a couple of books, there are ways to get the most out of it. By caring properly for the e-Reader and using it often instead of buying printed alternatives, you can be sure that your usage of an e-Reader is sustainable.

To be as sustainable as possible with your e-Reader, you should remember to:

  • Only download book you’re reading at the moment to save on storage
  • Take care of your e-Reader’s battery
  • Repair before replacing
  • Replace your e-Reader with a refurbished model when you absolutely need to
  • Borrow or swap print books where possible

Ethical Consumer has a guide on tablets and e-Readers which is essential reading before choosing what e-Reader to purchase. They recommend avoiding unethical brands like Amazon, RCA, and Xiaomi, but as long as you purchase a second-hand or refurbished model then you’ll be doing less damage to the environment.

Alternatively, don’t buy an e-Reader at all! Most tablets have access to apps from popular eBook retailers and this cuts down on the carbon footprint of your reading by eliminating the environmental impact associated with manufacturing an e-Reader.

Are e-Readers really greener than books?

Based on the evidence we do have, which could be better, e-Readers are only greener than books if they can replace tens or hundreds of print alternatives.

For bookworms who read a lot, an e-Reader is a worthy investment to save on the environmental impact of printing books, but swapping to buying second-hand books or purchasing print-on-demand ones can also make a difference.

What are the pros and cons of eBooks?

When weighing up whether to swap from print to eBooks, consider these pros and cons.

Pros Cons
  • Reduce the number of trees cut to create paper
  • Keep multiple books in your bag without doubling how much room is taken up
  • Accessibility – you can change the font size, typeface, and more
  • Reading at night doesn’t need a flashlight with an eBook
  • Saving and annotating passages in an eBook
  • Instantly download your next read
  • Save money
  • Lack of physical page-turning and the smell of books
  • You don’t actually own the book – if you delete a download and the eBook is no longer available you can’t get it back
  • Not great for reading under sunlight
  • Your device can run out of battery – not great if you’re using your phone!
  • Can’t share with friends
  • Losing your password means you lose all your books

Should I stop buying paper books and use an e-Reader instead?

The choice of whether to stop buying paper books and use an e-Reader instead is up to your preferences.

Ultimately, an e-Reader could save you a lot of money in the long term if you buy more than a book a month, but you can also save money by looking around charity shops, selling at independent bookshops, and borrowing from your library instead.

If new releases are important to you, an e-Reader benefits you more because you don’t have to wait for the book to arrive. You can just start reading! But if you have a lot of variety in your to-read pile then you can probably source your books from local stores and charity shops.

If you want to curb the carbon footprint of your reading hobby, try swapping to reading eBooks on a phone or tablet you already own. See how you feel about reading digitally before committing to buy an e-Reader and try to look out for refurbished and second-hand devices.

You could always set up a book swap or free lending library in your neighborhood instead of having enough reading material is important but eBooks aren’t quite for you.

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