Saturday, September 5, 2009

New report finds Kindle greener than physical books - is that really so?

On August 19 Cleantech Group published a report that was supposed to put an end to an ongoing debate on the question if the Kindle and other e-readers are actually greener than physical books. The release's title was "E-readers a win for carbon emissions."

It was supposed to be the life cycle analysis many people, including myself were waiting for. I have to admit I was very excited to read about it as we follow this debate for a long time. I decided to read it and see if this is really it. If it's really over.

The report, entitled 'The Environmental Impact of Amazon's Kindle' was written by senior reporter Emma Ritch. I read the executive brief (7-page long) and was happy to find a well-written analysis that integrates many pieces of information that together create a more coherent picture. At the same time I wasn't that sure about the validity of the findings.

There were two main issues that bothered me mostly: the carbon footprint of a single Kindle and the assumption about the number of e-books the average user is reading. As you'll see these are important factors in the analysis and have significant influence on the findings.

Here are my thoughts about them in more details:

1. What's the carbon footprint of a single Kindle?
This is an important part of the analysis - you can't have a comparison between physical books and the Kindle without this figure. But fortunately the report has it:

"...the second-generation Kindle represents the same emissions as 15 books bought in person or 30 purchased online. That would yield a range of between 60.2 to 306 kg of CO2, or an average of 167.78 kg of CO2 during its lifespan."

The problem is with this estimate (Kindle has the same emissions as 15 books bought in person or 30 purchased online). This is not a figure provided by Amazon. The report is explaining that "Amazon declined to provide information about its manufacturing process or carbon footprint". This report takes this figure from a "Los Angeles-based architecture and construction firm Marmol Radziner Prefab used the IDC lifecycle analysis calculator."

I went on to check how Marmol Radziner Prefab come out with this number if Amazon doesn't provide any data and found on their website that "One of our architects recently gave the calculator a whirl by estimating the carbon footprint of Amazon’s new Kindle Wireless Reading Device. " OK, but how did he do it? they explain: "He answered a few questions and found that the Kindle has the same footprint as 30 paperbacks ordered from Amazon’s store. So if you’re going to read more than 30 books on your Kindle, it’s greener to purchase the digital reader than the paper copies."

Given the fact that Amazon doesn't provide any data (well, we have to say the report mention that Amazon has established a recycling program by mail for Kindle and its batteries to prevent the improper disposal of e-waste), this figure looks to me as a guestimation. In any case, an experimental use of an architect with the IDC lifecycle analysis calculator is far from being something you can take into an account in an analysis, especially when you don't have any second or third sources to verify it.

You can see how vague this figure is from the attempts of Green Inc. blog to figure it out. They tried to check it with Amazon and got no response (why is Amazon so unresponsive about it? would it be easier and better for them to be transparent about it??)

They also checked with Casey Harrell, an international campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, which monitors the environmental impact of consumer electronics, who said e-readers remain something of an unknown variable. “In terms of the Kindle or other similar e-book gadgets, I don’t know what chemicals are in or out,” Mr. Harrell said. “Companies will want to brag about their eco-credentials, so if you don’t see any mention, they’ve probably not been eliminated.”

To show you how game changing this figure is let's say the figure is not 15/30 books but 30/60 books. Then an average Kindle will emit 335.6 kg of CO2 instead of 168 kg during its lifespan. The meaning of the change of this figure is that the number of actual physical books offset per year per e-reader jumps from 22.5 to 45. It means that each reader will become greener than paper books only after it will replace 45 books and not 23 books.

The author, Emma Ritch, said to Green Inc. blog about the e-books that “The key is they displace the purchase of 22.5 physical books.”Following the uncertainty about the Kindle's carbon footprint, we have no way to know if this figure is the right key. Right now it looks like only Amazon has the right key and we still don't know what it is.

2. The number of e-books the average user is reading?

This is also an important figure required for the analysis, as it helps to estimate the effectiveness of the Kindle in replacing paper books. The author decided to use the estimation of Forrester, which is that each consumer purchases three e-books a month, or total of 36 e-books a year. She then explains:

" by adopting Forrester’s rate of three e-books a month, we forecast that the average consumer would purchase 144 e-books in four years, potentially displacing 1,074 kg of CO2."

Based on that number and the assumption that every 1.6 e-books purchased replace 1 paper book, she gets to the figure of 22.5 books a year which is the breakeven point - you read more on your Kindle and you're making it officially a greener alternative.

But will users read so many e-books? I doubt. This number is related to the number of books readers read (unless your assumption is that readers will read much more when they switch to e-books which is not the case here) and the number of books read in average tell a different story.

According to the 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 (including babies which actually have many books, sometimes more than the average adult..). So as you can see there's some difference between 3.3 books per a person, which is based on real figures and the estimation of the report - 36 books per a person.

Now, it might be that Forrester's estimation (36 books) is correct, but it relates only to the avid readers which are the early adopters of the Kindle devices. What can happen to this number of books when 14.5 million units of e-readers will be sold in 2012? the report explains:

"Forrester estimates that each consumer purchases three e-books a month but that the average will drop when lower e-reader prices entice casual readers. Alternately, average purchases could increase as more books become available in electronic forms."

Still, is it OK to use the figure of 36 books per a year as the average number of books read by users? how many people you know who read 3 books every month? I decided to further check it and found a survey of AP in 2007 that found the following: "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: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry', which mentions that 3.1 billion books were sold in 2006, which is an average of about 10 books per a person.

So even if we take the higher alternative estimation of 10 books per a year, we get that instead of getting fully offset after the first year of use, a Kindle is getting offset only after 2.25 years of use.

The bottom line of the report is very clear:

"The roughly 168 kg of CO2 produced throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle is a clear winner against the potential savings: 1,074 kg of CO2 if replacing three books a month for four years; and up to 26,098 kg of CO2 when used to the fullest capacity of the Kindle DX. Less-frequent readers attracted by decreasing prices still can break even at 22.5 books over the life of the device."

So is the debate over? I'm afraid not. As much as the report contributes to clarify the debate on how green are e-readers, there are still some issues that need to be finalized as I showed here. I'm afraid that declaring the Kindle as a clear winner is still too early. The key to the podium is still in hands of Amazon - if they'll provide us with their data on the Kindle's footprint and maybe even life cycle analysis it would be then the right time to claim a winner.

For more information on ebooks vs. paper books visit

If you are interested in studying the environmental impacts of materials and processes or other environmental topics, check out


Raz @ Eco-Libris


Ben said...

Hello, this is Ben Regnier. I'm the MRP employee that made the original investigation with the IDC Calculator. This was done independently of my work with MRP - the original post is here:

You can see in the post above the limits of my assumptions - I made well reasoned guesses on the makeup of the object (using other electronics as a guide) and had approximate construction and warehousing locations due to insider business posts. That being said, this was done over the weekend as a (fairly intensive) exploration of the calculator software and should not in any way be interpreted as a scientific study. As you can see in my post, the biggest surprise came in the enormous disparity in carbon footprint between books purchased online and at a store (assuming one drives to the store).

I am a little bit shocked that Cleantech would appropriate this post without at least asking me about the rigor of my methods, or simply doing a few hours' more research on their own and getting a more accurate result from the calculator themselves. Much more rigor should as well go into the lifecycle study of paperback books, particularly factoring in overproduction and the costs of warehousing and recycling the unsold stock.

I hope this helps to unravel a few of the questions you had, and I want to congratulate you on digging deep enough to find my kernel in that report, and bringing it to my attention. Keep up the good work!

Thad McIlroy said...

I thought the Cleantech report was an appalling example of sloppy research and second rate reporting by an organization that clearly was working to further an obvious and one-sided agenda. I took it with a grain of salt, saddened only that the general public, not knowledgeable on the subject, would give it far more credence than it deserves.

In my article on book publishing on my site ( I quote the latest NEA data:

* Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.
* The percentage of 18- to 44-year-olds who read a book fell 7 points from 1992 to 2002.
* The percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period.
* Although nominal spending on books grew from 1985 to 2005, average annual household spending on books dropped 14% when adjusted for inflation.

That's just a single data point.

I look at the Kindle vs. dead trees debate in more detail here:

Worse still (at least from the environmental perspective) is Jeff Bezos' claim that the "Kindle is re-igniting a love of reading — after purchasing a Kindle, customers purchase, on average, just as many physical books, and their total book purchases on Amazon increase by 2.6x."

So now we have the carbon footprint of paper PLUS the new carbon footprint of eBooks and e-reading devices!

Further Thomas Wetjen, Xerox vice president for the graphic communications industry was quoted in the 12-08 Hard Copy Observer speculating that that Amazon's Kindle will actually help rather than hurt the book-printing business. "As more books are viewed electronically, that will just shorten print run lengths and drive volume to digital," he asserted.

There is much to understand here...superficial accounts insult the reading public.

Sully said...

Excellent analysis.

I found you after reacting to the blurb on AOL about the Kindle with some skepticism.

One thing left out is that it's not a question of how many books are read but on how many books are bought. I buy a lot of books. The popular novels among them tend to circulate within our family for years. A lot fewer books are bought than are read. And in estimating the CO2 cost of books I would suspect Cleantech took in the overall cost of publishing. I don't know how much, but a great deal of that cost is in the fixed cost to produce books. Assuming there will still be libraries and a significant non-library market for print books that fixed CO2 cost will continue regardless.

Another thing is that at least some, if not many, Kindle buyers will no doubt find that the device is not as satisfying as a print book or that it represents a different sort of experience, at least for one who grew up on print books. As a long time very intensive reader I find that hardbacks are a different experience from paperbacks, and audio books (which I get from the library) are yet again very different.

Yet another issue is that Cleantech assumed a 4 year life for the Kindle; but it seems to me that Ipod and digital camera generations turn over a lot faster than that.

Finally, I wonder how Cleantech handled the fact that books themselves are a store of tied up CO2 which last a relatively long time. The farm grown and harvested trees that sucked the CO2 out of the air to make the carbon compounds in my library died an average of 20 years ago.

This is not to say that I think the Kindle technology is a necessarily bad one. I'll probably buy one of the things eventually; but I'll be a doubter about CO2 until somebody shows me some pretty elaborate numbers based on actual usage of the things.

green said...

I would suggest using
Save Money, Save The Planet specializes in the recycling of textbooks, DVDs, CDs. Buying used textbooks not only saves you money, but cuts down on greenhouse gases caused by the manufacturing of new textbooks.
With you're not only saving trees, you are saving some green.

Timberati said...

We might want to remember, Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos told attendees at BookExpo America, an annual bookseller’s tradeshow, “After purchasing Kindle, customers continue to purchase the same number of physical books that they bought before buying their Kindle, but altogether…their [Kindle plus physical] book purchases on Amazon increased by a factor of two point six.”

Unknown said...

Hmmm, this is a hard calculation. How do you work out the impact once the kindle breaks and has been discarded? Had the same argement over LED light bulbs the other day. But I do think anything that can save energy and reduce costs is a good thing.

Sam King said...

Here some info on eReader CO2 emisssion that helps to complete the picture:

E Ink vs LCD Why E Ink eReader is Best