Saturday, September 18, 2021

Reading via Paper or Digital Device?

With my goal of reading 52 books this year (which I officially surpassed on August 11th, and am now working toward my stretch goal of 75), the lion share of what I've been reading has been on my Kindle*. More specifically, the Kindle app on my phone as I don’t own a physical Kindle or e-reader (who needs yet another device). It's via the app, via the cloud, via my phone. My husband finds it humorous that I tend to opt for my phone versus my iPad. Years ago when I read Alison Weir's 643 page book Six Wives of Henry VIII, and he inquired it the book was 5000 swipes with 8 words per page. (It wasn’t.)

I’ve gone back and forth between “real” books and e-books.  For a long time, I needed print books because I allowed myself to get too distracted by emails, texts, Facebook, and more when I was reading online. But I've ebbed back and now this year, I’ve almost exclusively been reading books digitally on my phone. In some ways, the more I read, the more it has actually kept me off social media**. That's the beauty of a good book!

With the Kindle app, I’ve gotten used to my percentage indicator while tracking my book progress. I love that I can change the size of the font--a great accessibility feature! The portability is an amazing bonus as my phone is lighter than a book or 3--not to mention books add extra weight in my bag which means more weight on my knees (which is already a problem, let me tell you). I can easily pull my phone out my bag at a coffee shop, in the car while waiting at the carpool line, or even in a store line that’s winding on forever. I'm also a big highlighter and note taker when I read. That feature plus the built-in dictionary makes it very easy to bop back and forth between my books and notable notes. Additionally, I do like the ease of reading a chapter or two in the dark by dimly lit phone when I'm awake at 3 am, which happens more often than I'd like.

As a tech teacher, I often get Amazon gift cards, and they primarily to digital books--fiction and nonfiction both. I find it a good escape and a worthy hobby, so I chalk up the expense to that. 

But it all has led me to ponder…which is better for our environment? Print or digital? It's a pretty hot topic.

There are strong arguments that print books give your eyes a break from screens and the blue light and the fact that you process information more critically and slowly when reading print. We tend to skim more on devices (think texts, emails, and Facebook posts), so the content makes its way more into your memory when reading it on paper. The conversation broadens when you consider platforms such as Audible too, but that's a bigger topic than for here right now.

Paper books also give you a visceral experience affecting the senses: holding, page turning, and even the smell of the book! This all can add to remembering the content. And I will say, one of my favorite places in life is a bookstore. You can't browse in the same way in an online forum as you can in a brick and mortar bookstore. An additional perk of paper/printed books include if the book is printed on recycled paper. This, in turn helps to save not only the resource of new paper but the energy, water, and chemicals (and ultimately pollution) involved in creating new, virgin paper. Another con of paper books is the shipping that is involved in the process to get it to the store (and then to your house if you purchase it online). However, physical books can be passed along after reading, saving money, saving resources, and sharing ideas--all part of the 3 R's: reducing, reusing, and recycling. If you have nowhere to pass it along to, consider donating books to libraries, senior centers, or neighborhood Little Free Libraries.

Going digital eliminates the environmental issues of paper mill pollution and paper production's taking of trees, glues, and inks. The carbon footprint is better in those ways, however there is the cloud storage (not to mention creation) which requires computers, electricity, and environmental impact. Of course, these days too, computers are involved in print books too. I've seen this quote a few places: "If the internet was a country, it'd be the world's 6th largest polluter." Plus there's the materials (sometimes toxic) involved in the creation of these digital e-readers (phones included). Devices also need batteries and use electricity to be charged. One could argue that we have the phones anyway (as in my case where I'm reading off of my phone), but still the impact is there, especially when it comes time for disposal.  

For specifics on numbers related to the environmental impact of digital publishing at this article at CCCB LAB with the same name, written byMarta Escamilla Monelland Jordi Panyella Carbonell published in May 2021

Additionally, New Scientist's February 2021 post by Mike Berners-Lee entitled "Is It Better For The Planet To Read Online or In a Paper Format?" has some interesting points--including this quote which indicates a cost-analysis based on how much you read, which for me leads to digital.
"A typical paperback book has a climate impact similar to that of watching 6 hours of TV, at around 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This unit is a measure of carbon footprint, expressed in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same impact over a 100-year period.

E-readers are slightly better than paper books, as long as you use them many times. In my book How Bad Are Bananas?, I estimate their carbon footprint to be about 36 kg CO2e, so you have to read the equivalent of at least 36 paperback books (bought new, then recycled)in e-book format before the paper saving outweighs the emissions embodied in the device." ***
The moral of the story as stated elsewhere in the New Scientist article: "Reading books is a low-carbon activity, however you go about it." You can't be doing anything else (like driving or watching TV) while you are doing it. The library, used bookstores, and book swaps with friends are probably the best way to lower your environmental impact. My opinion too is to go with whatever format works best for you to read as much as you can.

So, whichever way you go about it, just read! For information, for new ideas, for the love of a good story, or just plain for fun!

*Yes, there are other e-readers like Nook or Kobo, but I'm going with my experience with Kindle. Additionally, for the purposes here, I'm lumping all e-readers together.

**At one point, I had taken social media off my phone, but between the 2020 election news and noise, Covid, pandemic, associated pandemonium, and more, I brought it back due to the plight of being human and requiring escapism in the midst of insanity.

***The following resource states the offset is 22.5 books per year. Additionally it quotes "Audiobooks may have a lighter environmental footprint, since readers generally listen on their smart phones with no additional device required." (This pairs with what I do--using an existing device and app to read your books:

Images created at

No comments :

Post a Comment