When you think about books and the environment, you assume the more books you buy, the worse it is for the planet – and you’re not wrong.
This leads a lot of people to use an e-reader, such as a kindle, instead. But, are they really that much better for the environment? And due to the growing problem of E-waste, could they even be worse than physical books?
The UK is one of the biggest producers of e-waste in the world. In the fourth quarter of 2022, almost 111,400 metric tons of household waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) were collected in the United Kingdom.
But what actually is E-waste?
Electronic waste, also known as E-waste, describes discarded electrical or electronic devices.
Used electronics which are destined for refurbishment, re-use, re-sale, salvage or disposal are also considered E-waste.
E-readers such as kindle’s are composed of glass, metal and plastic components that can be difficult to recycle.
With new devices and upgrades being released quicker than ever, people can be quick to discard their old device for the newest model.
So, are e-readers actually worse for the environment than paper books?
What do our readers think?
We put this question to our readers on Reddit, one of which said: “My biggest concern with E-waste is that technology is constantly evolving and older tech can become useless quickly.
“New phones, tablets, computers, TVs etc come out relatively frequently as older models become obsolete, and there seems to be a general trend of just getting a new item rather than repairing the old one.
“I use my tech until it doesn’t function properly anymore (and do my best to get it fixed if I can – but even that can be challenging), but I know many people who just can’t wait to upgrade their iPhone to the newest model when it comes out – which can generate a lot of waste both e waste and all that packaging plastic.”
Another reader, who’s more on the fence, wrote: “I think it’s basically very personal as to whether long term, the e-waste outweighs the (paper) book, since both options result in waste.
“With e-waste, the issues are long term and environmental (also ethical since the resources are often hideous in origin and manufacture). With books the issues are the huge physical volume and the chemicals involved in creating the paper/printing etc.”
What do the experts say?
Christian Maskrey, an experienced earth and science engineer at AquaSwitch, said: “E-readers, as all electronics, are only an issue when they end up in the landfill, where they may release mercury and other toxic components from the battery. As well as precious metals.
“When properly disposed though, the batteries can be safely dealt with and the precious metals like gold, silver and lithium can be recycled and re-sold. The main issue is twofold: awareness of the issue and infrastructure, which is present in countries like the UK but absent in most developing countries.”
A study in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment found choosing an e-reader would break even with paper books at 4.7 books per year, if consumers read for less than 11 hours per day.
So, for an avid reader who gets through a lot of books, an e-reader might be the greener choice. However, if you only pick up a book once a month, you’re better off buying the physical copy.
Maddy is a journalism student who enjoys writing about culture, entertainment and the arts. If she’s not reading a book, you’ll find her listening to Taylor Swift. She’s passionate about books that reflect what’s going on in society and lead us to ask important questions about the world around us.
Favourite genres: Contemporary Fiction and Romance.