Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Should you buy an e-reader as a gift this holiday season? Here's a green perspective

Julie Bosman wrote yesterday in the New York Times that "In a recent Consumer Reports poll, 10 percent of the adults surveyed said they planned to give an e-reader as a gift this year, up from 4 percent in 2009." According to Forrester Research, these plans are estimated to be translated into purchases of 1.3 million e-readers by American shoppers in the upcoming holiday season.

While I was reading it, I thought to myself that e-reader can be a nice gift, but what about the environmental impacts of such act? Should people really consider giving an e-reader as a gift?

Now, I'm trying to look at it from a realistic "green" point of view. I mean, we all know that the holidays is a celebration of shopping, which generates a lot waste and is far far away from any sort of sustainability. Having said that, I know that people like to give gifts, so I'm not going to preach here about giving just a card you made by yourself (which is not a bad option by the way), but instead I'll try to add into your considerations a green perspective.

The good news is that as you'll see there's no contradiction between a good gift and a green gift. When it comes to e-reader it's actually (almost) the same thing. You will see that in a minute.

As I mentioned in my article 'Is E-Reading Really Greener?
', when comparing the carbon footprint of the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G Model provided by Apple (130 kg CO2) with the carbon footprint of an average physical book (7.46 kg CO2, as provided by Cleantech report), I found a breakeven point of 17.4 books, meaning that in terms of carbon footprint, the iPad becomes a more environmental friendly alternative option for book reading once its user reads the 18th book on it.

Now, let's generalize this finding and apply it for the rest of the e-readers. It means that in general if you buy an e-reader to an avid reader, or someone that reads at least 6-7 books a year, then there's a good chance this gift will reduce hers or his reading's carbon footprint - if and when they will start reading books on the e-reader instead of buying physical ones.

So the first question you need to ask yourself is how much of a reader the person you want to buy him the e-reader is? If she or he doesn't read much, then not only you didn't buy them a green gift as they might not reach the breakeven point of 18 books, but you also bought them something that is not that useful for them, which means you can think of other gifts that can be more useful and enjoyable for them.

Another question you should ask yourself is about the chances they'll start reading using electronic format. Some people might do it very easily, while other won't as they like too much physical books or just not interested in changing their reading habits.

Remember that the worst thing is if you're buying an e-reader that will become sooner than later another piece of electronic junk that will end its life inside a drawer, or to become part of the 40 million tons of e-waste are produced globally each year according to the UN (see Annie Leonard's excellent 'Story of Electronics' to learn more about it).

This also brings us to the last two questions you should ask yourself - first, is the person you want to buy e-reader to likes to update or replace gadgets quite often? If we're talking about someone who (like most Americans) reads only six to seven books a year and switches to a newer e-reader version within three to four years, your gift isn't that green anymore.

And the last question, what is the chance they will recycle the e-reader when they'll stop using it? According to the EPA, in 2007, approximately 18 percent (414,000 short tons) of TVs and computer products ready for end-of-life management were collected for recycling. Even if you take Apple's figures into consideration ( In 2008, Apple recycled 33 million pounds of electronic waste, achieving a worldwide recycling rate of 41.9%), you will find out that there's a good chance that the e-reader you bought won't be recycled. Why it's important anyway to make sure the e-reader will be recycled? 'Story of Electronics' provides some good answers as well as on Electronics TakeBack Coalition's website.

To sum it up, you should ask yourself 4 questions about the person you want to buy e-reader to:
1. Is she an avid reader?
2. Is there a good chance she will start reading books in an electronic format?
3. Will she keep the e-reader for at least 3 years?
4. Is there a good chance she will recycle it properly when she will replace it or just stop using it?

If you replied 'Yes' to all 4 questions, you can go ahead and search for an e-reader, knowing you'll bring this time a useful gift that is eco-friendly from many perspectives. If you don't answer 'Yes' to at least 3 of these questions, you may want to look for another gift.

Next week we will discuss the next important question - which e-reader to buy from a green point of view?

More resources on the e-Books vs. physical books environmental debate can be found on our website at www.ecolibris.net/ebooks.asp.

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Promoting Sustainable Reading!