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What is the environmental impact of e-readers compared to paper books? This question has kept experts running in mathematical circles ever since e-reader sales boomed in 2007. There are literally dozens of factors that could be weighed in determining the eco-friendliness of e-readers. How many trees must be cut down to manufacture the product? How much water is used to produce one e-reader? One paper book? How much electricity and fossil fuels are consumed in the manufacturing process? How many nonrenewable natural resources are used? What about toxic chemicals? These are just a sampling of the questions environmental experts are asking. I’ve gone as deep in my research as one possibly can using the internet, and have come out more confused than ever. So instead of trying to answer these questions comprehensively, I’m instead going to outline the myriad of factors that must be weighed when trying to figure out the environmental impact of e-readers and paper books, draw my own conclusions, and let you do the same.
Every year, the publishing industry uses over a hundred billion gallons of water to print untold numbers of books. Researchers estimate that seventy nine gallons of water are needed to manufacture one e-reader and seven gallons for one printed book (two gallons if the book is printed on recycled paper). E-books require a little under two cups of water to produce. Doing the math, an e-reader becomes more efficient in its water use after reading about a dozen books on it.1 It’s realistic to expect that someone who spends $150 on an e-reader will read at least that many books on it during its lifetime, so in this category, the e-reader obviously comes out on top.
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