Eco-friendly reading: printed books or e-reader?
Have you ever thought about eco-friendly reading or about the environmental impact of your reading habit? We wondered what would be better for the environment: reading a book in the traditional way on paper or reading books on an e-reader.
We compare the impact of reading printed books with reading e-books via an e-reader. The environmental impact of these product systems is determined by means of a Life Cycle Assessment. In this blog, we zoom in on the results of this LCA study.
Table of contents
The e-reader and the reading books are analyzed over the entire life cycle (cradle to grave). To compare these two alternatives it is important to choose the same unit. You can of course read more than one book on an e-reader. The impact of the production must therefore also be divided over the amount of books you read.
We assume that someone reads two books a month with an average of 300 pages. So this is 24 books per year. Furthermore, we make the assumption that an e-reader has a lifecycle of 5 years. In total, 120 books are read in 5 years. This makes the functional unit 120 books read over a period of 5 years.
Reading a paper book starts with the production of the book. Paper books are printed using industrial printers, which consume electricity and ink. After production, they are transported by truck to a bookshop in the Netherlands. From the bookshop, the books are delivered to the end user’s home in a small transport van.
The use phase of a book is free of emissions. There is simply no material or energy required to read a physical book. After the book has been read, the book is placed in the wastepaper basket together with the packaging. Because the paper is recycled at the end of its life cycle, we save new wood chip production (the basis for paper pulp). This also avoids environmental impact.
Because the time horizon of this analysis is five years, this entire process will be repeated 120 times.
The e-reader’s system starts with the materials for the device itself. The production of e-readers mainly takes place in China. For this case, we assume that production took place in Shanghai. From China, the e-reader is packed and transported by boat to the port of Rotterdam, after which it is further distributed by truck to a store. After placing an order by the end user, the e-reader will be transported to the home address by a delivery van.
The use of the e-reader consists of two parts. First of all, the device needs to be charged before it can be used. An average 1,500 mAh battery of an e-reader consumes about 345 Wh for a full battery. With one full battery you can read for about 2 weeks. To read two books a month, the battery must be charged twice. This has a major environmental impact because the Dutch electricity mix is still mainly based on fossil energy. After the service life of five years, the e-reader will be deposited and processed according to standard waste disposal for electronic waste.
When we compare reading 120 paper books with 120 e-books read on an e-reader, we see that the paper books have a higher environmental impact for most impact categories (Figure 1). The e-reader only has a higher impact in terms of resource use, minerals and metals and freshwater ecotoxicity (inorganics).
Since we would like to know how you can read environmentally friendly here, we specifically zoom in on the impact category climate change. From this we can conclude that buying and reading 120 books results in a CO2 emission of 153 kg. The same number of books read on an e-reader results in a CO2 emission of 52.3 kg.
To see where the tipping point is in terms of CO2 emissions, we also have to take into account the fact that an e-reader is charged per book. When someone reads more than 25 books in five years, it is more favorable in terms of CO2 emissions to read these on an e-reader. If someone reads fewer than 25 books in five years, paper books have a lower impact.
Eco-friendly reading & LCA-report
In short, if you read more than 25 books in five years, you can read environmentally friendly with an e-reader!
But we have assumed in this case that a reading book is only read once, and then ends up in the trash. But you can of course read a book much more often, by different people. If you prefer to read a physical book, and you want to reduce the environmental impact of your own reading habit, it is best to pass a book on to someone else after use so that it can be read again. By using (neighborhood) libraries, you can ensure that books are read more than once. This avoids the need to produce new books, and thus saves on emissions!
Do you prefer to use an e-reader to read books? Then try to read as many books as possible on your e-reader, and buy as few physical books as possible. Start with eco-friendly reading!
If you want to read the LCA-report, click on the image right.
Sources & Links
 We used the impact categories of the EF Impact Assessment Method. This method is the result of the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) initiative and provides a standard method for impact assessment. The information from this case is based on literature data. In addition, we use two databases to model the life cycle steps: the ecoinvent v3.6 database and the National Environmental Database v3.1.
 Babbitt, C. W., Madaka, H., Althaf, S., Kasulaitis, B., & Ryen, E. G. (2020). Disassembly-based bill of materials data for consumer electronic products. Scientific Data, 7(1), 1-8.
 Sangprasert, W., & Pharino, C. (2013, January). Environmental impact evaluation of mobile phone via life cycle assessment. In 3rd International Conference on Chemical, Biological and Environment Sciences (ICCEBS’2013).