The Environmental Impact of Reading

As an avid reader, I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a more socially conscious and environmentally friendly consumer. In my city, Auntie’s Bookstore holds poetry slams and other events that contribute to a thriving culture, so I have been buying books to support them. I believe in supporting small businesses because they add character to a community, as well as dollars and jobs in the local economy. On the other hand, I’m also concerned about how buying new books leads to manufacturing, production, and cutting down trees. According to the Green Press Initiative, more than 30 million trees are used to make books sold in the U.S each year.

Transporting books from the publisher to a bookstore, and again to a new residence (or back to the publisher if they fail to sell, where they become waste) takes fossil fuels. E-readers help circumvent these problems, since no trees are required, and readers can buy books without using fossil fuels for transportation. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that e-readers are more efficient.  E-readers require energy to use, and lending someone books on an e-reader is more difficult than lending them physical copies. According to Emma Ritch of the Cleantech Group, “It’s not just buying e-books that matters.  The key is they displace the purchase of 22.5 physical books.”  For less frequent readers, buying hard copies may actually have an equal or lesser environmental impact. Another key factor is to use the same device instead of upgrading to new models to prevent e-waste. If you really want to upgrade, pass it along to someone else instead of throwing it away.

As for myself, I can’t afford an E-reader right now, and I have been trying to think of a way to balance my environmental concern with wanting to support a bookstore that is an important part of my city’s economy and culture. I’ve decided to continue buying books there, but to mainly go for the used ones,  and, when I’m done with the books I buy, to donate them to the library, sell them, or pass them along to a friend. This bookstore is on a bus line, which helps cut down on carbon emissions. Fortunately, the library I go to is within walking distance, which allows me to cut down even more. I bring my backpack with me so I can put the books I check out straight into it without using plastic bags. Libraries have some of their own issues, such as printing receipts as long as a person’s arm (at least mine does, not all libraries do this), but overall I consider them to be the most environmentally friendly option. Buying physical books and digital ones both have environmental advantages and drawbacks, depending in part on other factors, such as one’s reading habits. No one way is necessarily better than the other.

Happy reading!


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