For many people an increasing amount of media consumption has become digitized, whether listening to music, watching a movie, or reading the news or a book. It’s part of what’s been dubbed the dematerialization of culture, and has been touted as the future, an important step in creating a more ecologically aware and sustainable world.
But when considering environmental impact, it's more accurate to say that digital media consumption shifts negative environmental effects to new places, rather than reducing them.
Reading the News
One Swedish study completed at the KTH Center for Sustainable Communications looked specifically at reading the daily news in print, on a computer, and on an e-reader. It factored in different mixes of energy used to produce and consume the news as well as the differences in materials needed for printed versus digital versions. It also examined how much time was spent reading. All of these factors can significantly change the environmental impact of news reading.
The study found that if you live someplace that produces its electricity similarly to the European average (that is, slightly greener overall than the U.S. average), and you spend just 10 minutes a day reading the news, then reading online or with an e-reader produces less of an environmental impact, measured in terms of carbon emissions.
However, if you’re an avid reader who spends more than 30 minutes a day reading the news, the print edition results in a lower environmental impact than reading online (28 kilograms of CO2 per year, per person for print versus 35 kilograms per year, per person for online reading). As we produce more electricity from carbon neutral methods, however, the situation can change, shifting the balance toward online reading having a lower impact. Improvements in energy efficiency among our electronic devices can also start shifting the balance in favor of online reading.
Books vs. E-Readers
According to one life-cycle analyses of printed books versus e-readers, the energy, water, and raw materials needed to make a single e-reader is equal to that of 40-to-50 books. In terms of the effect on the climate, the emissions created by a single e-reader are equal to roughly 100 books.
If you read 100 books on your e-reader before upgrading it, the effect on the climate is no different than reading those books in print. If you upgrade before that time, your carbon footprint actually increases compared to reading printed books. If you read 200 books on the device, the climate impact is halved. The result is the same for resource and energy usage, though the threshold to break-even is lower.
Let’s assume you upgrade your e-reader every three years. That means you need to read roughly 30 books every year before you’ve reduced your climate impact, and 15 books a year before your resource usage is lower. If you upgrade more frequently, you need to be an even more avid reader to lower your environmental impact by switching to digital.
Benefits of Both Print & Digital
Of course, there are advantages to reading digitally that go beyond any environmental impact assessment, like carrying an e-reader instead of a bag full of books. There are also advantages to reading print that transcend any life-cycle analysis—longevity, tactile feel of paper, and better reading comprehension.
Print or digital—there isn’t one right answer for which is better for the planet in all circumstances. Each of us has to evaluate our own reading habits and preferences. However, one thing we can’t say is that simply by using an e-reader or computer to read, we are always choosing the more sustainable option.