The Sony Reader e-book viewer hits the UK today, hoping to "revolutionise" the way we read. Whether you think it's a hot gadget, a solution in search of a problem, an opportunity for new authors (Toby Young's opinion) or an over-priced gizmo (Nick Hornby's take), one question remains: is it green? Does Sony's e-book viewer have a smaller environmental impact than the printed book? Let's take a look.
Below, I've looked at how 'p-books' and e-books square up on three areas of environmental impact.
First is the 'embodied carbon', the amount of carbon dioxide emitted to manufacture a book and the Sony Reader in the first place. Second is the carbon running cost -- the energy consumed to acquire new books and read them. Lastly, I've considered what happens to books and the Reader when they reach their end of life.
So, without further ado… let eco battle commence!
Round one: embodied carbon
My requests for information from Sony on the Reader's green record fell on deaf ears. So, to guesstimate how much carbon it takes to make one, I've used the UN University's 2004 study on PC manufacturing as a yardstick. According to the UN, the production of one desktop PC and 17 inch monitor consumes 240kg of fossil fuels.
Let's be generous and assume the hi-tech Reader, which is far smaller than a PC and monitor, uses one tenth of fuel. That's still 24kg worth of oil and other fossil fuels.
The Reader's most likely made in China or Japan before being shipped to the UK. It'll then be delivered to a depot before being sent to individual shops. Unlike a book, it has packaging, which adds to the carbon cost of transporting it and producing the packaging in the first place.
(scores are out of 5, with 1 representing the worst negative environmental impact and 5 the least)
UK publisher Penguin estimates the carbon footprint of a 500 page paperback -- like Zadie Smith's White Teeth -- is around 2.5kg CO2. That figure includes the entire production, from chopping trees and pulping them, transporting the paper, printing the book and transporting the finished book from warehouses to shops. Most UK books utilise paper sourced from Finland and other European sources.
Neither technology appears much greener than the other on manufacturing. While a single book's carbon footprint is almost certainly a fraction of the Reader's, the difference is less clear cut when you factor in tens or hundreds of printed books. Due to a lack of hard evidence in the public realm, the jury's out here: it's a draw.