How green is my Kindle?

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I visited the beautiful town of Ludlow in Shropshire to take part in their annual food fair. We sampled the delights of the local ales, sausages, cheeses and something resembling squashed road kill that was actually really tasty. Delightful as all this was, this isn’t what I want to talk about today.

We were staying a few miles from Ludlow in the shadow of the Long Mynd hill at Church Stretton. We stayed at our all time favourite B&B which is comfortable, welcoming and ever so friendly. We shared a dining table with our four fellow guests at breakfast when (without any prompting from me) the conversation turned to eBooks. One lady said that she wanted to buy a Kindle as her husband had just bought himself an iPod. He dismissed this ridiculous notion. What was the point of a Kindle? You can only read books on it. And anyway, he preferred the feel and smell of a “real” book.

Well, at this point she could have come back with all manner of retorts: you can carry hundreds of books in something smaller than a paperback; you can adjust the font size; if you run out of things to read, you can be browsing and reading again in no time; the price of eBooks is lower than the paper ones…

But the reply she came back with was the green one: you don’t destroy rain forests with eBooks. This was dismissed with: “we won’t have to worry about that, we can leave it to our children to deal with”.

The table was stunned into silence and my wife and I who both work for a conservation charity were biting our tongues. Why, this gentleman has just set back our conservation work by 40 years!


But later on I started thinking. How “green” is the Kindle?

The thinking goes that when everyone has Kindles (or other eReaders), the paper book will disappear, demand for paper will drop and rain forests will be saved. But just as electric cars produce zero greenhouse gas emissions while transferring these to the generating plant sites, the Kindle is not a 100% green alternative. Consider the following:

  • The manufacture of millions of Kindles requires plastics (oil) and precious metals while energy is consumed in the production and distribution of the finished goods
  • The internet is not powered for free; all those fibre optic transmission systems, copper based transmission and satellite communication systems are very power hungry
  • The Kindle is a low power device but consider the power required to recharge millions of these devices

The case against paper books:

  • Uses vast forests of trees
  • Requires energy to convert wood pulp to paper
  • Distribution costs are high (both in $$ and environmentally)
  • Physical storage – if I had fewer books, I could live in a smaller house
  • You need to visit a book store (or browse an on-line store and wait to receive your book)
  • Font size is fixed
  • No handy dictionary feature

OK so I’m straying off the environmental point a little here and in doing so revealing my prejudices – I happen to think that eBooks are the future.

But the environmental point is a valid one and I’m afraid I don’t have the answers. It might make an interesting PhD thesis for someone though. If such a study has been done, I’d be very interested in hearing the results.

Are eReaders going to save our planet? Maybe not. But till the studies have been presented, I like to think that the electronic book is the green alternative.