Even paperback fans can enjoy the magic of carrying around an endless library aka an e-reader during summer vacation. But what are really the greenest ways to enjoy your read? 

How Eco-Friendly Are Paper Books and How Eco-Friendly Are E-Readers?

Whomever I’ve asked, people seem to have strong feelings towards e-readers: they either absolutely love or absolutely hate them.

Those who love e-reading devices will tell you how much paper and place are saved, how little energy is needed, and how convenient the readers are in terms of usability – font size, lighting, you name it.
Those who love books on the other hand will argue that e-books drive book stores intro bancruptcy, don’t feel like actual books and can’t be displayed beautifully, plus e-readers are made of a slew of potentially conflict and/ or toxic materials. For me, this is clearly a personal choice, one with pitfalls.
That’s why I won’t and can’t give you any guidelines. What I can do is recap what we know today.

PROBLEM 1: EMISSIONS

Researchers at the German Öko-Institut Freiburg have found that a modern eInk e-reader’s emissions from production and a lifetime in use sum up at 8 kg CO2 (and I found this number astonishing to say the least). Ten paper books, 200 DIN A5 pages each, will emit 11 kh CO2 when printed on fresh-fibre paper and 9 kg CO2 when printed on recycled paper. // Source

On the other hand, researchers at Designlife Cycle, a work-in-progress project by design undergraduate students at the University of California, Davis – Department of Design, have looked specifically at the Kindle. Their estimate is that in terms of global warming, the Kindle is worth 100 paper books, while it’s worth 40-50 paper books in terms of fossil fuel, water use and resource consumption. // Source

TL;DR.
However different the data from these sources may be, it shows that you’re pretty much better off with a good e-reader than with paper if you can read > 100 books in your life.

How Eco-Friendly Are Paper Books and How Eco-Friendly Are E-Readers?

PROBLEM 2: WATER + RAW MATERIALS + TOXICITY

Like most modern tech, e-readers are made using non-renewable as well as potentially conflict materials, and manufactured with possibly questionnable social and environmental responsibility.
In terms of toxicity, while Apple have pioneered BFR‑free and PVC‑free materials (source), not all brands have followed up. Worth knowing: both the iPad and the Kindle comply with the European RoHS directive that bans the use of certain toxic substances in electrical and electronic goods.

However, paper is not completely green either. Printing, and the production of paper, whether fresh-fibre or recycled, are processes that need a lot of water. According to the Designlife Cycle project, the production of a paper book requires 78 times the water that the publication of an e-book requires (source).
With deforestation looming in many regions of our planet, paper is a problematic resource as well.
And lastly, inks used for printing release toxic VOCs into the atmosphere which contributes to an array of serious health issues from asthma to cancer.
More info on VOCs.

TL;DR.
Toxic compounds and the use of non-renewable or threatened raw materials occur on both sides. The amount of paper books available in green quality is minimal yet, and in terms of tox-free tech I personally trust Apple the most – simply because they are quite transparent for such a gigantic and influential company.

What's more eco-friendly and sustainable, a paper book or an ebook?

BOTTOM LINE?

With data based on mostly estimates and press articles quoting one another, what are a consumer’s best, greenes options? I hear you complain why it’s so tiring and tedious, trying to compare the eco balance of a printed versus an e-book… But what’s the alternative, stop reading books altogether?

Of course not.

Start by choosing according to your preference: paper or e-reader and considering your reading habits. Then you – we, us all – can try to simply be mindful about our consumption behaviour, and it’s not even half as irritating as crunching those mostly estimated numbers while trying to make an informed decision:

PAPER BOOKS, GREENER OPTIONS
– Choose books with FSC or similar certifications
– Choose books printed with eco-friendly inks and on recycled paper
– Consider using your local library more often
– Swap books with friends or maybe host book-swapping parties
– Buy second-hand books

E-READER, GREENER OPTIONS
– Buy less, for example choosing a multi-functional iPad that you can use for work, play and reading instead of getting an additional e-reading device
– Be mindful of your device’s battery life (read the user manual for more info on correct usage) in order to make the device last longer
– Stick with one device until you’re read at least 100 books and magazines 😉 instead of getting a new and “hotter” device every year or so
– Dispose of your device properly
– Buy a pre-loved and revamped e-reader

Making informed decisions might not always be equally satisfying across different areas of our life, but overall, it’s a process that will make you feel better, enable you to choose wiser and even give you the opportunity to move things forward if you’re passionate enough.