Carbon Footprint Break-Even of eBooks and Tablets

We know that every item, whether grown or manufactured, has its own unique carbon footprint and a surprizing amount of embodied energy that went into its manufacturing and distribution.

A product’s carbon footprint break-even, the point at which the amount of all the invested energy and related CO2 emissions become equal to another alternative for someone to derive the same benefits.

As an example, how high does the stack of newspapers have to be rise to equal the related CO2 emissions from manufacturing an e-Book?

At some point, all the energy of making the paper, shipping it to the printing plant, and then turning it into a newspaper that’s then distributed to us, finally equates to all the energy that went into making the high-tech components of the manufacturing of these reading devices.

Carbon neutrality begins after this break-even threshold is crossed, and then the environment can breathe a little easier.

The point in time that carbon neutrality is realized depends on the components that make up the item, the transportation methods used and the distances to your front door.



Green Blizzard readers have been asking what the real environmental payback is for e-books and e-readers, whether it be the Apple iPad, Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook or any of the other e-readers currently on the market.  Readers have been writing in asking some hard questions – does this technology really make a difference to one’s sustainable lifestyle and the lower an individual’s carbon footprint?   Good question. What is an eBook Carbon Footprint Breakeven?

After all, the publishing industry (including books, newspapers, and magazines) has traditionally had a negative impact on the environment, as evidenced by its huge carbon footprint and consumption of raw materials. In fact, 125 million trees and several million gallons of water are consumed each year by this industry alone.





So what is the eBook carbon footprint break-even?

The Kindle e-reader has its own carbon footprint, the combined result of mining the materials, manufacturing and shipping the parts to assembly plants, and delivering the finished product to market. After the e-reader is put into use, it does consume electricity, though really a very small amount compared to laptops and many cell phones.

The Amazon Kindle and other e-readers are still relatively new in the marketplace, with a little more than one million units sold as of early 2010. In the United States, Amazon currently holds a 45 percent market share of e-reader devices, trailed by Sony, which has 30 percent.

Okay, so you are thinking about buying an e-reader and are wondering how many printed books have to be replaced by downloads in order to recover the carbon investment in the device itself. Well, here’s your answer.

According to a recently released study by The Clean Tech Group, e-readers recover both the upfront production carbon footprint and the lifetime operating costs after only 23 electronic downloads. It is estimated that, on average, this is roughly one year’s worth of Kindle use.

Consider converting today to one of these devices.

Over the lifetime of the device, particularly with avid readers, the positive effects on the environment are evident after just the first year alone. Naturally, this time frame is much shorter – probably just a matter of a few months – if users also forgo printed newspapers and magazines, downloading them instead.



Industry projections suggest that there will be 14.4 million of these devices on the market by the end of 2012. The Cleantech Group report, authored by Emma Ritch, states:  “Any additional years of use result in net carbon savings, equivalent to an average of 168 kg of CO2 per year (the emissions produced in the manufacturing and distribution of 22.5 books).” The Cleantech Group forecasts that e-readers purchased from 2009 to 2012 could prevent 5.3 billion kg of carbon dioxide in 2012, or 9.9 billion kg during the four-year time period.

This past summer, the Green Blizzard staff reported spotting more and more e-readers being enjoyed at the beach, in public parks, on subway trains – even while out walking the dog. Several Green Blizzard staff members have purchased their own Kindles and are really enjoying the experience, particularly the convenience and ready access to a wide selection of books.





This habit modification is a no-brainer from a carbon footprint perspective. Get an e-reader today and start saving trees, fuel, waterways and carbon. And if you’re reading while walking the dog, make sure to watch out for that lamppost!

Be sure to also read: Gift Ideas For A Green Handyman, What is Phantom Electricity?, Green Cleaning Products, Savvy Green, Energy Efficient Windows, Water Conservation Around The House.

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About the author

Keith Blizzard

A life-long environmentalist, Keith set out on the never ending journey of adjusting his lifestyle to a more sustainable one, with a goal of annually shrinking his carbon footprint. When he looked around for a dependable source of meaningful carbon footprint reduction ideas, it was pretty lame - so he launched Green Blizzard loaded with eco-friendly lifestyle tweaks. When he's not managing Green Blizzard, you'll find him on the trails around Mid Coast Maine with his trusty trail companion mutt, Moose.

2 Comments

  • Does this assessment take into consideration the built in obsolescence of the electronic device? Books last well over 100 years. How many Kindles does a user have to purchase throughout a lifetime? What will the environmental impact be then?

    Additionally, can you address the issue of conflict minerals? I am also interested in the issue of personal responsibility to recycle e-waste. Any data that shows the percentage of e-waste actually recycled would be appreciated.