Is Reading on Your iPad More Green Than Paper Books?

Many people use the iPad (s aapl) to replace a physical library of paper books, mostly because it’s very convenient to do so. But is it also better for the environment? A recent report considers the ecological impact of e-books in general, and specifically addresses the iPad’s impact, too.

Carbon Footprint

The report, prepared by non-profit organization the Green Press Initiative (PDF), takes into account the average lifecycle of e-reading devices, and even accounts for the general impact of the iPad (in terms of the production process used in making one) on human health when compared to that of the average book. Using Apple’s own published environmental report regarding the iPad (it’s the only e-reader / tablet maker that even publishes one), Green Press Initiative determined that an iPad is responsible for 130 kg (287 lbs) of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions over its average lifetime. The average printed book, by contrast, is responsible for only 8.85 lbs. So, an iPad owner needs only download 32.4 books instead of purchasing paper copies in order to reach the break even point when it comes to carbon footprint.

Resources and Human Health

But carbon emissions aren’t the only consideration when it comes to environmental impact. The report goes on to note that the iPad’s construction is roughly equivalent to between 40 and 50 books when it comes to fossil fuel, water and mineral consumption, and that a single e-book has 70 times the impact of a printed book on human health, owing to particulate matter resulting from energy use and the book’s production.

Known Unknowns

The report acknowledges that there are a few factors where the ultimate impact of the iPad and other e-reading devices isn’t yet known. These include energy consumption that occurs during the device’s use stage, which is obviously zero for paper books. It does point out that in some cases, even using a light while reading uses more energy than an active iPad, which uses about 3 watts when used specifically for reading e-books. Server storage energy use costs are another potential factor, but again the report stresses that this impact is likely relatively small and spread out across a large number of users.
E-waste and recycling are the biggest question marks when it comes to e-readers. Books can be recycled, but it’s not clear how many actually are. E-readers can also be recycled, but it’s a more difficult process and in some cases, recycling simply means a device handed down to less developed parts of the world for precious material recovery, with the remainder discarded in traditional landfills. This is by far the most difficult and nebulous cost to account for.

How Many Books?

In the end, the report suggests a sliding scale with ranges wherein the iPad and other e-readers might be more green than their paper counterparts. The more printed books you offset with an e-reading device, the better. At around the 30 to 70 book mark, the report estimates, is where the break-even point lies in terms of general environmental impact, and it’s between 60 and 90 titles where it starts to become better to buy e-books than paper ones. Matt Schneider, a researcher and graduate student working in digital and print culture, points out that the national average for books read per year in Canada is about 20. In the U.S., it’s is only around 9 (or 15 if you don’t include the Americans that read zero books). At these rates, it’s probably better for the environment that the general population continue to use paper books, while heavy readers move to digital formats.
The Green Press Initiative also points out, however, that since the iPad is a multi-purpose device, its environmental impact is defrayed over a number of activities, not just e-reading. Also, the impact of downloading an e-book for someone who already owns the iPad for other purposes is relatively small; so in fact it may be even more of an environmental do-gooder than even the Kindle(s amzn), which has lower power requirements but is also generally a single-focus device.