Are E-Readers Greener Than Books?

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Let's say you're the kind of person who likes to read and cares about the enviro...wait. This is Seattle. Let's just assume those things. Here's a question you might have asked yourself before: are e-readers like Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad better for the environment than books?

It's a complicated question. Full of contingencies I hadn't even thought of, like how much water it takes to make those electronic doodads that can deliver a tome like War and Peace to your lap in the time it takes to say Tolstoy.

Thankfully, Slate's enviro-focused advice column (yes, such a thing exists) The Green Lantern has crunched the numbers and come up with a manageable, bite-sized response: e-readers are greener, so long as you buy a lot of e-books and don't ditch it for a new model every year.

Think of an e-reader as the cloth diaper of books. Sure, producing one Kindle is tougher on the environment than printing a single copy of Pride and Prejudice. But every time you download and read an electronic book, rather than purchasing a new pile of paper, you're paying back a little bit of the carbon dioxide and water deficit. The actual operation of an e-reader represents a small percentage of its total environmental impact, so if you run your device into the ground, you'll end up paying back that debt many times over. (Unless, of course, reading Pride and Prejudice over and over again is enough for you. Then, by all means, buy it in print and enjoy.)
But what if your lust for the printed page overwhelms your desire to go green? The Lantern has another Amazon-friendly suggestion:
If you're not ready to plunk down $139 for a Kindle or $499 for an iPad, or you just love the feel of dead tree between your fingers, there's one thing you can do to significantly ease the environmental impact of your reading: Buy your books online. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are horribly inefficient because they stock way more books than they can sell. Between one-quarter and one-third of a bookstore's volumes will ultimately be shipped back to the publisher and on to recycling centers or landfills. The carbon footprint of the average book purchased in a bookstore tops 15 kg of CO2 equivalents, more than twice the overall average for books.
 
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