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.

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Raz @ Eco-Libris