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What’s better for the climate: A paper book, or an e-reader?

In the face of human-caused climate change, paperbacks and e-readers each have pros and cons.
JGI/Daniel Grill
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Getty Images
In the face of human-caused climate change, paperbacks and e-readers each have pros and cons.

The summer reading season is here.

Some people will opt for paperbacks because they're easy to borrow and share. Others will go for e-readers, or audiobooks streamed on a phone.

But which is the more environmentally sustainable option? Reading's carbon footprint is not large compared to other things people do, like travel, and it isn’t something most people consider when choosing how to read a book. But for those looking for small changes in their lives to reduce their impact on the climate, it might be worth exploring how the ways we choose to read books affect the planet.

A complicated question to answer

Whether it's better to read books in print or on a device is complicated, because of the complex interplay of the resources involved across the entire lifecycle of a published work: how books and devices are shipped, what energy they use to run, if they can be recycled.

Digital reading is on the rise — especially audiobooks. According to the Association of American Publishers, they now capture about the same share of the total US book market as e-books — roughly 15%. But print is still by far the most popular format.

"Publishers are interested in preserving the business that they've created over hundreds of years," said Publishers Weekly executive editor Andrew Albanese, explaining why the industry is focusing most of its efforts on improving the sustainability of paperback and hardcover books, rather than digital formats. "They are looking to run those print book businesses as efficiently as possible, as cleanly as possible, as green as possible."

On the one side: traditional book publishing

Traditional print publishing comes with a high carbon footprint.

According to 2023 data from the literary industry research group WordsRated, when it comes to pulp and paper, print book publishing is the world's third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, and 32 million trees are felled each year in the United States to make paper for books. Then there's the printing and shipping — to say nothing of the many books that are destroyed because they remain unsold.

Although it's standard practice in the industry, publishers don't want to destroy books. So instead, many are donating unsold copies, switching to on-demand printing, or, like Chronicle Books, are reducing their initial print runs to see how well the titles sell before they print more.

"We felt that it was better to have a higher cost and have less waste," said Chronicle Books president, Tyrrell Mahoney.

Chronicle Books, like many other publishers, is also trying to use more sustainable paper.

"We have this great partner in India who has now figured out how to use cotton-based up-cycled materials to print as paper," Mahoney said.

Publishers are also rethinking book design. It might be a surprise, but certain fonts can be more climate-friendly by using less ink and less paper.

 Harper Collins has introduced sustainable fonts that use less ink.
Harper Collins / Harper Collins
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Harper Collins
Harper Collins has introduced sustainable fonts that use less ink.

"So far, these subtle, imperceptible tweaks have saved more than 200 million pages across 227 titles since September," said Harper Collins' senior director of design Lucy Albanese. NPR could not independently verify these page savings.

On the other: digital publishing

All well and good. But digital reading seems to have a considerable eco-advantage over print because it is paperless, so it saves trees, pulping and shipping. Moreover, tech companies that make e-readers such as Amazon, which sells the market-leading Kindle e-reader, offer recycling programs for old devices.

"By choosing e-books as an alternative to print, Kindle readers helped save an estimated 2.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions over a two year period," said Corey Badcock, head of Kindle product and marketing. NPR could not independently verify these emissions reductions.

But digital devices also come with a substantial carbon footprint, predominantly at the manufacturing stage. Their cases are made with fossil-fuel-derived plastics and the minerals in their batteries require resource-heavy mining.

The short answer to which is better: it depends

"It's not cut and dried," said Mike Berners-Lee, a professor of sustainability at Lancaster Environment Centre in the United Kingdom, of the comparative climate friendliness of digital versus print reading.

Berners-Lee, the author of The Carbon Footprint of Everything, said the average e-reader has a carbon footprint of around 80 pounds.

"This means that I've got to read about 36 small paperback books-worth on it before you break even," he said.

Figuring out whether to take a digital device or a paperback to the beach ultimately depends on how voraciously you read.

"If you buy an e-reader and you read loads and loads of books on it, then it's the lowest carbon thing to do," Berners-Lee said. "But if I buy it, read a couple of books, and decided that I prefer paperback books, then it's the worst of all worlds."

Yet Berners-Lee said that reading is still, relatively speaking, a pretty sustainable activity — regardless of whether you read using an e-reader, phone or old-fashioned paperback.

Both audio and digital versions of this story were edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento mixed the audio version.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 26, 2024 at 12:59 PM CDT
This story has been corrected after an earlier version of the article stated that book publishing is the world’s third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, when in fact it is the third largest within the pulp and paper industry.

Additionally, this story has been updated to provide greater perspective on the effect of book publishing on the climate as a whole.
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Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.