Simple questions rarely have simple answers, and this is no exception. With a reported tie between adult ebooks and traditional hardcovers, we all want to know which is actually greener.
But the experts are as evenly split as the sales!
The methodology used to determine this sort of thing is called Life Cycle Analysis. It takes into consideration the environmental impact of a product from production right through to disposal. This isn't a simple matter of equating trees saved to energy used.
Nor is it categorically equal across brands of readers and publishers of books. The problem with broad generalizations is that they reduce our capacity to consider nuance.
A small-scale printer engaging primarily in direct sales, using recycled paper, vegetable-based inks and ecologically conservative business practices doesn't have the same footprint as a printer who takes a less conscientious approach. To make matters more complicated, some e-reader producers have been quiet about their environmental position — not divulging lists of ingredients or manufacturing information — while others (probably the green leaders in the field) have edged closer to transparency.
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Are we then to judge one industry by its model citizens and another by it's full spectrum?
A better approach is to consider individual cases and make practical decisions based on the facts. For example:
Case A: Fred already has an e-reader and wants books for Christmas.
Solution A: Buy him electronic books!
Case B: Maya doesn't have an e-reader. She too wants books for Christmas.
Solution B: Scour the second-hand bookstores for that perfect find. Fun!
Case C: Kamal is an avid reader with too many books...and he wants more.
Solution C: Urge Kamal to make use of the public library, where books — virtual and traditional — can be borrowed for free! Bake him cookies instead.
With books — as with everything — we would do well to consider the three Rs sequentially: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Reduce new purchases by borrowing books from the library. It's the greenest option. Second to that, buy quality. The longer an e-reader lasts — or the more efficient the printing methods used — the less the environmental cost of your purchase.
Reuse books by buying used. It the person on your list is a purist addicted to the texture and smell of real books, they'll undoubtedly appreciate the inherit character of a used book.
Recycle books that are just collecting dust on the shelves by donating them to charity. Engaging in a sharing economy is recycling at its best.