The debate between digital books and paper books has remained an issue since the introduction of the first e-readers in the mid 2000s. The e-book reader was invented as a way for people to store many books on one device and hopefully reduce many of the costs associated with traditional books. Since e-readers have existed for several years now, it is easier to project their impact on the world today than it was when the readers were first released. It turns out; the issue is not nearly as black and white as first thought.

Currently, the use of e-readers and traditional books are both growing. Only a few countries have adopted the heavy use of digital readers (the UK, the US, Australia, and India). The rest of the world is still dependent on traditional books. As the population of the world increases, so does the number of printed books produced each year. The use of digital books is increasing as well. Digital books accounted for 31 percent of book sales in the United States in 2012.

Digital versus Print

Digital books cut back on many of the costs of print books. Print books use manufacturing machines to print the books, fuel to transport the books, trees and other materials to make the books, and recycling centers to dispose of the books. Books also create nearly 9 pounds of carbon emissions throughout their life, according to the Green Press Initiative. Using a digital format reduces the amount of materials used to make books and reduces the carbon emissions associated with book production- but only if the world actually starts making fewer books.

The Gray Area

Here’s where it starts to get murky: according to the article “The Price of the Paperless Revolution” by Ted Genoways, an e-reader uses about the same amount of energy and materials as 40 or 50 books. You have to read at least 40 books on your e-reader before the materials used to produce it are negated. Most people replace their readers within 2 years, which means that a person would need to read at least 80 books on their device to make up for the impact on the environment. With 10 million e-readers expected to be in use within the next few years, users would have to replace 25 million books with digital copies.

In general, it takes about 5 years of reading a book on a digital device to match the carbon footprint of traditional print reading. That accounts for an adult reading about 7 books a year. It can take longer, if a tablet computer is used instead of a dedicated e-reader. Since most people replace their digital devices within two years, reading books on an e-reader can take up to 250 percent more energy and resources than print reading, according to the study “Are eReaders Really Green?” by Nick Moran.

The Verdict

So should you throw out your e-readers and simply read books? Not necessarily. E-readers provide huge benefits over traditional books, such as easy portability and the ability to read books from a computer-based device. Just don’t expect to save the planet with your tablet computer.

Writer Biography

This is a guest post by Lindsey Mcmahon. Her interests are entertainment, television, parenting and health but she is constantly extending her field of view to incorporate interesting news suggested to her by her readers. She currently works for Common Ground.