Print Vs. Pixels: Environmental E-Scorecard

An old colleague sent word that a Vermont writer took very strong exception to my position in Margot Harrison's Vermont Seven Days article about the environmental benefits of books vs. e-readers (kindles, Ipads, etc).  The interview was about 15-20 minutes, and it all got boiled down to a couple of sentence quotes from yours truly:
“If you buy a book that’s already been read once,” says Ingenthron, “then probably your footprint is zero.” His best advice for preserving paper? "Buy somebody a library card."
Waste Expert Bliss [wiki commons]
Mr. Bliss (a cartoonist) responded with a letter to the editor:
"In Margot Harrison’s story, “Print Versus Pixels” [April 13], Robin Ingenthron states that “hard-rock metal mining is by far the most horrible polluting activity by man on the planet.” Is Robin high? That’s an outright lie. The “academic scrutiny” he’s missing here is the devastating pollutants generated by the meat industry! Christ, that takes five minutes to fact-check on Google. Is hard-rock mining worse than oil spills?.." 
First things first.  Yes, hard rock metal mining is worse than oil spills etc...  Yesterday, Associated Press ran a story on gold mining in Peru, part of which is to satisfy need for gold in new electronics.  See also the OK Tedi Mining Disaster (Borneo). ... that mine has now been reopened to satisfy metals demand in China's electric and electronic industry. The mining of metals for electronics is indeed the most polluting activity on the planet.  That is not an "outright lie".  The Ok Tedi River, Danube River, and Pearl River metals spills were indeed worse than oil spills.  Here's a recent article about how much mining waste is dumped at sea near Indonesia - that's not a spill, that's normal production, par for the course.  Hard rock mining (mining of non-ferrous metals, gold, tin, lead, palladium, silver, copper, etc.) is completely underrated.  Google "earths most toxic places".   Ask EPA, ask USGS, ask Superfund (14 of the 15 largest Superfund sites are hard-rock metal mining or smelting related)... etc., etc.,

However, to save Harry Bliss a heart attack, I thought I'd qualify my statements...  It was not about getting people to read Mr. Bliss' comics at the library, which I understand might be upsetting to someone living on royalties.  This was about environmental impact of print vs. electronic displays in the context of a gift. If you do buy an e-reader, for yourself, use it by all means.  My wife bought one and loves it, has read 3-4 books in a few weeks since she got it.

Assuming that what is printed is worth reading...   The environmental math ultimately depends on two calculations:

1) The number of works read on the Kindle during its life
2) The number of people who read on the printed book

It's all about the energy and resources per human read.   An e-reader will win if the download (reads) per brain is higher.  But a single unread book is better than an under-used or obsoleted kindle.

Continuing with Mr. Bliss' letter:
Ingenthron goes on “...if you have an e-reader and you don’t read...” WTF! Who has an e-reader who doesn’t read?! I don’t know many people who buy $300 devices for no reason at all; that is a ridiculous argument."
The specific question asked by Ms. Harrison was about gifting of an electronic device.  For that, I said the electronic-reading device is most suitable for reading lots of works - especially works (like in a foreign language) which are specialized and not likely to be re-read again.  It's difficult to compare that to a single book, with lots of readers.  A book that never gets read is a wasted tree.  But an electronic device which gets "obsoleted" by a change in software, media, or damage is a waste of hard rock metals.

Now, there certainly are paper books that get bought and sit around like trophies and never get read, and should never have perhaps been printed.  That's why my vote in the article was that the safest environmental choice is to (re-)read books at a library or used book store.  If you don't like the book, after a couple of pages, you can put it back on the shelf, or re-sell it used.  (Harry Bliss Death By Laughter: $0.01 on Amazon - a real bargain).

The advantage of an e-reader is arguably highest on bad books.  If you download a book on Kindle, and decide not to read it, you are still at virtually zero additional environmental impact.  But if it's a great book, you cannot pass it along, the copyright becomes like an MP3 or song, not transferable like a record or a book. If someone writes books that never get shared or re-read (self-help, dieting, etc. are culprits), by all means, they should want those books sold digitally, and not to be wasting trees.

As his wikipedia photo would attest, Mr. Bliss claims to be something of an expert on this type of waste.
"I’ve published five New York Times best sellers, been “on press” during massive first-print runs and visited countless booksellers from Maine to California, so I feel I have some insight into the battle over e-readers and traditional books. The bottom line, in my expert opinion, is that traditional books are worse for the planet than reading devices, and if I hear one more “book lover” tell me how much they “love the feel of a book,” I’m going to throw up. On the book lover."
The worst case scenario is to buy an electronic device and accidentally break (or vomit on) it... Once you have made the mining and energy investment to own an e-reader, you should take care of it and read it.  I don't know what the breakeven point is for the number of works you have to read on a Kindle to make it pay for itself environmentally... or the number of bad paper books not to print.  But it takes ten tons of mining waste to make a single 5 pound laptop.   Metal mining also destroys the trees on the mountain, not just the oceans and streams.  That's the math.  And I'd guess that a ten year old book has a better chance of being used than a 5 year old e-reader... but we shall see.

Harry Bliss, the letter writer, may have been writing tongue in cheek.  American humor tends to exaggerate (British humorists tend to understate).  I don't judge a man by a single letter to the editor, and hope he doesn't really think I'm "high".  Vermont's a small place, I can invite him for a coffee, to see the amount of "e-waste" from rapidly obsoleting devices which I'm confronted with ever day in my job.  I make my money off of this ewaste stuff.. (See Kevin J. Kelley's 2009 Article on E-Waste in Seven Days) if I'm wrong, I appreciate the chance to make more e-waste income... Socratic-ally speaking, I appreciate the slapiroo, dialectic is good.

Finally, here, one of the best sources of statistics is from  While I don't agree with all the remedies Takeback promotes, we do agree that most of the pollution and harm from an electronic device is produced before it is ever used, reused, or made "e-waste".  Excerpts below:
  • To manufacture one computer and monitor, it takes 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water.
“Finally, the production of electric and electronic devices is a very resource‐intensive activity. The environmental burden due to the production of electrical and electronic products ("ecological baggage") exceeds by far the one due to the production of other household materials. A UN study found that the manufacturing of a computer and its screen takes at least 240 kg (530 pounds) of fossil fuels, 22 kg (48 pounds) of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes of water ‐ more than the weight of a rhinoceros or a car (Kuehr and Williams, 2003).”
  • 81% of a desktop computer’s energy use is in MAKING the computer, not using it
  • When you add up the energy usage during the whole lifecycle of a computer with a 17 inch monitor, you find most is used during manufacturing, not using the computer:
“In contrast with many home appliances, life cycle energy use of a computer is dominated by production (81%) as opposed to operation (19%).”

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