Most people probably assume that in the long run e-readers such as the Kindle, Nook or even iPad are easier on the environment than traditional books. But exactly how many physical books in your home must you replace with electronic books to break even in terms of environmental impact?
The question becomes one of weighing the per-unit environmental costs of producing traditional books (ink, printing, water, paper and carbon dioxide) with that of the one-time larger environmental costs of an e-reader. One iPad or Kindle is pretty tough on the environment but if you replace enough books with your e-reader, it turns out you'll actually be doing the planet a favor.
See GOOD's info graphic here.
So what is the magic number? According to the environmental consulting firm Cleantech, a single book generates about 7.5 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. The iPad, in turn, generates 130 kg of carbon dioxide during its lifetime while analysts estimates the Kindle weighs in at 168 kg. Doing the math shows that you'll have to replace 18 paper books with electronic ones to offset your iPad and 23 to offset a Kindle. And this is just one environmental facto: carbon dioxide emission.
When you consider other factors such as the water consumed during book publishing, the picture becomes more clear. It takes about seven gallons of water to produce the average printed book. Digital books, on the other hand, are electronically published on less than two cups of water (through the paper they use in other office activities). And the initial water-related cost of e-readers are estimated at 79 gallons.
Other environmental factors include toxic chemicals, including a number of VOCs and the environmental impact of brick-and-motor bookstores (I thoroughly enjoy a good bookstore so this factor would not be at the top of my list) where e-readers increase their environmental edge after replacing only a few traditional books.
All this being said, visiting your local library, which spreads the environmental impact of a single book over an entire community.