Ecological impact of e-readers and digital reading

In the United States, the e-reader market is much more developed than in Europe and e-book sales account for nearly a quarter of sales. At first glance, this “de-materialization” may seem a good thing, making it possible to produce fewer paper books, objects that require cutting down trees, bleaching leaves, producing ink… Nevertheless, digital reading is not fundamentally ecological. What should we think about it?

Paper book vs. Digital book

The paper book requires paper, products to bleach this paper, ink, but also digital machines for its edition, storage of digital copies and printing. The digital book, for its part, is quite similar to the paper book upstream of the production of the book object (the edition) but its distribution is totally different. Distributed through digital channels (book sales sites, publishers’ websites, pirate platforms, etc.), it does not involve the production of new copies: each copy is only a sequence of bits and bytes, and once a copy has been developed it is easy to duplicate it identically on the network. It therefore travels at the speed of light, consuming less energy during this journey than that needed to move a paper copy in a truck.

Can digital reading be considered fundamentally ecological? That would be forgetting the enormous ecological impact of the Internet infrastructure (servers, electricity consumed by customers, computer production, etc.) but also of the equipment used to read this book. If it is possible to read a digital book on a computer screen, and for those who already own a computer it is probably the most ecological approach, limiting the consumption of electronic equipment and therefore of the raw materials related to it, this is not the most pleasant reading experience: reading on a screen is tiring because the light (LED) is emitted from the bottom of the screen, before passing through a (transparent) panel on which are the pixels that make up the display. Depending on the quality of the screen, visual comfort may vary, but the e-reader offers a totally different experience: using electronic ink (e-ink) it can work without backlighting. You can therefore read in the sun, or illuminated by any light source of your choice. This is what makes this reading method more comfortable than reading on another type of screen: computer, telephone or tablet.

Digital ink also allows the e-reader to operate with very little energy: this type of screen consumes electricity only when changing pages. This means that an e-reader can have several-week autonomy. Ecological? Not necessarily. You have to produce this e-reader before you can use it. It requires metals and rare earths, produced in conditions that are often appalling for nature and for workers in peripheral countries. In addition to its ecological balance sheet, it is important to take into account a certain social balance sheet, which is far from being always positive. It is estimated that you need to read about 100 books on an e-reader to achieve a carbon footprint similar to that of a paper book.

Moreover, the risk of data hoarding (collecting digital files without having a real use for them) is probably amplified with the digital book, which implies the production and consumption of hard disks, storage space in a permanently fed “Cloud”… far from being ecological!

However, a book’s lifespan is at least 10 years (but many books live much longer!) and most paper books are given a second life, or even several, whether at bookstores or on dedicated digital platforms (in France, second-hand books represent 30% of the book market turnover!). The e-reader’s lifespan is not necessarily as long. If it could last longer, it may end up in a drawer: as all digital objects evolve rapidly, some wealthy consumers may be tempted to buy a new model of e-reader without any real need. Nevertheless, sometimes the digital e-reader may break prematurely: the screen on these devices is often very fragile. The cost of replacing the screen being prohibitive, some users will then throw away their device to buy a new one. Yet a repair would be possible, even if it proves more complicated than that of a smartphone or computer, where spare parts are plentiful. But are all e-readers the same on this side? They certainly don’t.

Types of screens and durability

If we consider that the screen is the part that most often causes a premature end for an e-reader, this part should be considered before deciding on a particular model, especially if the e-reader is going to be used in a “hostile” environment: in the presence of small children for example, or regularly transported in a backpack.

Most e-readers are now equipped with an e-Ink Carta screen. This is a very good quality screen, but the colored particles that make up the electronic ink are deposited on a very thin glass plate. This glass plate is extremely thin and extremely fragile. It can’t stand being bent, and that’s why a shock that bends the e-reader a little bit can break the screen.

Some e-readers, such as the Boox Note 2 from Onyx, use a Mobius type screen instead of a Carta type screen. Being an evolution of Pearl technology, this screen uses a thin layer of plastic instead of glass. If it is possible to usually consider that plastic rhymes with low quality, for an e-reader screen this may imply a better durability, considering that the screen is the sensitive part of an e-reader, limiting its ability to last.

E-Readers’ reparability

E-Readers of all brands are not easy to repair. Waterproof e-readers are probably the worst of all, often coated with some kind of glue, right on the components, to prevent water penetration. Some models (e.g. Kobo e-readers until 2018) have small SD card readers for internal storage: this makes it very easy to replace the storage chip (and thus the operating system) once the e-reader is open. Some use mobile phone batteries, which are easy to find and change. For the rest, the electronics are generally quite basic and solid (low-power processor, RAM, integrated circuit).

But as said above, the risk of breakage most of the time comes from the screens, and there it gets more complicated: they are hard to find, and expensive. The user is therefore forced to turn in most cases to the vendor, who will usually be able to repair the e-reader. As an example, repairing an Inkpad 3 e-reader, which can cost new for about 200 euros, costs 120/130 euros, not including shipping costs. And what is the recycling rate of the old screen materials? It’s hard to know…

Digital sociability vs. human paper book ecosystem

A factor to be taken into account for those interested in the ecological cost of digital reading is also the human ecology around the book. A paper book can be lent to a friend, encourages the use of a library or bookstore. With the digital book, one can have access to books that cannot be found in another form (books reissued digitally but not reissued in paper format, for example, books in other languages that would be expensive to import physically…) but one finds oneself retrieving one’s books either directly from the dedicated application of one’s reader, or on the Internet: it’s only a matter of time before the book is reissued in digital format.

Reading itself becomes a matter of files, backups, devices, rather than paper, with its grain, its specific texture, but also with the places where this special object that is the book is supplied.

The e-reader, however, because of its minimalist and reading-oriented approach, is not a computer or a smartphone: it does not invite to zap that is characteristic of web browsing, but rather concentration. This is closer to a paper book than to a tablet…

Sales channels and related professions are also evolving: algorithms are replacing booksellers, engineers are replacing material handlers. The consumption (in electricity and raw materials) of digital platforms is difficult to calculate, especially since physical books also exist in digital form with their publishers. Moreover, while some small publishers have quickly embraced digital book formats and offer ePub or PDF copies of their books directly on their sites, sometimes free of charge, the market mainly benefits a few big players, namely the giant Amazon.

Users’ consumption of books is becoming one of the sources of Big Data, making it possible to get to know everyone better, their tastes, preferences and even their reading pace. When we know that the Net giants’ main business is the resale of user profiles, we can be worried.

Conclusion: the digital book, yes but

The digital book is not as white as some merchants would like to pretend. Nevertheless, opening up to new, less horizontal modes of distribution, it can also open up other horizons. The main problem probably remains the production of e-readers, which are often far from being sufficiently durable or easily repairable, but as we have seen, it may be interesting to think about this phenomenon in a broader way, taking into account its impact on society as a whole, on the book ecosystem and on sociability in the age of the triumph of digital technology.

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