Tuesday, April 6, 2010

5 comments on How Green Is My iPad?

The New York Times published last Sunday an Op-Ed piece, How Green Is My iPad?, written by Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris. Norris and Goleman present there the life cycle analysis (LCA) they made, comparing e-books and physical books in an attempt to figure out "which is more environmentally friendly: an e-reader or an old-fashioned book?". Their conclusion was as followed:

So, how many volumes do you need to read on your e-reader to break even?

With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.

This Op-Ed was no accidental. A day earlier Apple released its iPad and as it reported later on 300,000 iPads were sold in just one day (including pre-orders). So it definitely looks like there's a greater need than ever in such a life cycle analysis and we congratulate Goleman and Norris for their important work. Do we have any comment or feedback? of course we do :) Here they are:

1. Looking for more transparency

Goleman and Norris justifiably mention that "some technical details — for instance, how those special screens are manufactured — are not publicly available". Many times we called here Amazon, Apple and other e-reader manufacturers to be more transparent and share with the public the information required for preparing a full LCA. We believe that greater transparency will work in their benefit eventually and hope they will show everyone they have nothing to hide.

At the same time, I was hoping to get more details on the LCA itself. The newspaper included just the summary of it, and although I'm sure Goleman and Norris did a great job, I was hoping they will publish somewhere the full assessment, sharing with the rest of us all the data and their and calculations. I'm sure it will only be beneficial for the process.

2. Where are the trees?

According to the 2008 'Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry' report, which was prepared by the Green Press Initiative (GPI) and the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), the biggest contributor to the industry's footprint was using virgin paper - forest and forest harvest are responsible to 62.7% of the industry's total carbon emissions. Cleantech's report "The Environmental Impact of Amazon's Kindle" also stated that "Paper is responsible for almost 75 percent of the publishing industry’s carbon footprint".

And still, I couldn't find any word on Goleman and Norris' LCA about trees and the environmental impact of their harvest to make paper. They only mention minerals and water. Did I miss anything here?

3. What's the footprint of driving to your bookstore?

Goleman and Norris calculate that "Driving five miles to the bookstore and back causes about 10 times the pollution and resource depletion as producing it.". Now, if by pollution they also refer to CO2, then I've got a little problem with the result.

The LCA doesn't say how much CO2 a physical book pollutes, but according to the Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts report, it's 8.85 lbs, in carbon dioxide terms. The Cleantech's report says it's 16.4 lbs per a book. Now, if we look at the CO2 emissions of a car driving 10 miles, then according to NativeEnergy Travel Calculator, it's between 4.4-15.4 lbs, depending on the car you're driving. In any case, it doesn't seems to be close to 10 times the pollution of producing a book, which can roughly be calculated from the two reports we mentioned as 5.5-10.25 lbs (if you take into consideration just the harvesting part which is 62.5% of the total carbon footprint).

4. So which option is more eco-friendly?

Well, if we look at the results and ignore for a minute all the missing information that is still not available or the differences between the e-readers, then it's still a tough call. As they mention in the results, the break even is anywhere between 40-100 books, depending on the factors you're taking into consideration.

According to the Cleantech report 1 billion books are sold every year in the U.S. With a population of about 300 million people it means every person in the U.S. is reading about 3.3 books a year. A survey of AP in 2007
found that "A quarter of US adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll. The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year and, excluding those who had not read any books at all, the usual number of books read was seven." Another source is the Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts report, which mentions that 3.1 billion books were sold in 2006, which is an average of about 10 books per a person.

In all, it seems that it can take anywhere between 4-13 years for an average reader to reach the lower break even point of 40 books. Will that be enough time? well, we'll need to see what will be the lifespan of the iPad, but I've got the feeling that under these circumstances, for an average reader, physical books might be a greener option. If you're an avid reader, the iPad or the Kindle is probably the preferred alternative from an environmental perspective.

5. The best option - walking to your local library

Goleman and Norris write at the end of their piece that "All in all, the most ecologically virtuous way to read a book starts by walking to your local library." We couldn't agree more. The only question is how many people actually use their library services and walk, or even bike, all the way there?

More resources on the e-Books vs. physical books environmental debate can be found on our website at

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Promoting sustainable reading!


alexfreddy said...

From the displays I saw being developed back in 2002, they are standard LCDs with a circuit that permits data retention when power is not supplied.

I use my library and bookstores on the way to other places, so no special trip; I also read 10 to 20 books year, mainly technical not available for the e-book

gih said...

That's a great adventure. And perhaps need to be galant like you to do that.

Joanne Fairmont Yinger said...

Timely article and something to think about. Like alexfreddy, I stop at the library when on errands, so no real additional fuel. I read 10-20 books a year as well. My biggest offense is probably receiving trade magazines, which I keep for reference--although I visit more sites on the web for design content than in past years.

Anderson Santos said...

For people like me, that live in Brazil but always need some book from US, probably buying a online reader will be much much better.

Pablo Edwards said...

Great to know that this is on the hearts and minds of a lot of people. I think long term iPads and like technologies will eliminate a lot of global destruction.