Ereaders are becoming more and more popular. There's Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook ereaders that more and more people are buying. They're touted as being enviromentally friendly. But are they really as friendly to the environment as is being claimed?
On the surface it would appear that an ereader is more friendly to the environment than a traditionally published book. No trees are used to produce an ebook nor is there any wastewater produced which must be treated.
Electricity however is used both in the production of the ebook and the reading of it. Epublishers use computers to make, market, and distribute ebooks which require electricity. While ereaders use batteries as their main source of power. Those batteries must be recharged using household electricity. The generation of electricity produces both air and water pollution and solid waste depending on the energy source.
According to the Cleantech Group as reported by cnet, the production of the Kindle produces 168 kg of carbon dioxide. A book produces 7.46 kg of carbon dioxide. After purchasing 22.5 ebooks instead of regular books, the ereader begins to produce less carbon dioxide than paper books. That number however does not take into consideration the energy required to produce the ebooks nor recharge the battery as described above.
Looking at the natural resources, books are printed on paper which is mostly made from trees. While trees are a renewable resource, the consumption of trees to make paper is an environmental concern. There is the Green Press Initiative to advance sustainable patterns of production.
Ereaders are made of many constituents including lead, nickel, cadmium, mercury, and plastic. Metals are not a renewable resource. We only have so much of it and then it is gone. Plastic is manufactured using petroleum products another nonrenewable resource. In addition there is the pollution generated from the manufacture of the plastic and the smelting of the ores needed to make the ereader.
Looking at the back end of these products life, what happens to the book when the user is finished reading it? Some people keep the books they have read. Some people pass on their books to someone else when they have finished reading them. Some people trade them in at a used bookstore or donate them to the library. Very few people who read books throw them in the trash when they are finished reading a book. (If you're one of those who throws a book away, then consider giving them away or at least put them in the paper recycling bin.) What ends up in the landfill is mostly paper which is biodegrable.
What happens to an ereader when it no longer functions? Most people will throw them in the trash. In a study of the ewaste stream, the EPA estimates that between 10 to 18 percent of electronic wastes are reused, refurbished, or recycled. 80 to 90% of ewaste ends up in the landfill and it is composed of nickel, cadmium, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals. While the EPA currently estimates that the leachate from landfills is below the standards set for these metals. It is not inconceivable that this will not always be the case and that there will come a point in time when the metals leaching from ewaste will be high enough to be a concerned.
In my opinion, the ereaders and ebooks are less friendly to the environment than a paper book. The problems created from book production can be mitigated and the industry made sustainable. The same can not be said of the ereaders.
If you want a Kindle or Nook, go ahead and buy one. (And when you're done with it, please recycle it in an ewaste recycling program.) Just understand that it is not as friendly to the environment as some proponents will tell you.
(ETA: I used to be an environmental engineer and worked in environmental compliance.)