Printed books or digital books - which are more environmentally friendly?

“Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs” - thus wrote Yuval Noah Harari at the beginning of his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of our human nature, with tales being passed down from generation to generation, from father to son, from mother to daughter, since the dawn of humanity. About 5,000 years ago, a major technological shift in the realm of storytelling occurred with the invention of cuneiform writing, which allowed humans to express in written form everything that they could previously convey only through spoken words. Testament to this, ancient scrolls and books relaying an array of narratives have been discovered worldwide. 

For thousands of years, these scrolls and books were accessible only to affluent or educated individuals. Their accessibility to the general public changed with the printing revolution in the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which enabled quick and cost-effective mass production of printed books. About 15 years ago, the digital revolution introduced us to the electronic reader (e-reader), a device specifically designed for viewing and reading books. Surprisingly, even with the advent of digital reading devices, printed books continue to dominate the book market. According to the American Publishers Association, only about 10% of all books sold in the United States are digital books, even fewer are audiobooks, with the majority being printed books.

Only around 10% of all books sold in the United States are digital books. A person reading a digital book | TierneyMJ, Shutterstock

How Do Digital Books Work?

The screens of digital books are distinct from those of televisions or computers. Anyone who has ever read a text from a computer or a tablet screen knows that after several hours, their eyes can become “fatigued”. Computer and television screens emit blue light that can potentially harm the eye’s retina. Additionally, sunlight or neon lights can create unwanted reflections on the screen. Computer and television screens, such as LCD screens, consist of thousands of pixels. Each pixel contains three cells equipped with red, green, and blue filters, and by combining these three primary colors, any desired color can be generated and displayed on the screen. The color of each pixel is determined by a change in an electric field that allows differing amounts of light to pass through each of the three cells making up the pixel. Thus, a specific color is created in each pixel, which may differ from the colors of other pixels. The full image we see on our screen is a result of the combined colors emitted from all the pixels. 

Unlike computer and television screens, e-reader screens utilize a technology called electrophoretic display. With this technology, each pixel consists of a tiny capsule filled with a transparent fluid and two types of small particles - white ones that carry a positive charge and black ones with a negative charge. These capsules are positioned between two electrodes. When an electric field is activated in one direction, only the white particles move up towards the screen, forming a white dot. Conversely,  when an electric field is applied in the opposite direction, only the black particles move towards the screen, forming a black dot. The combination of these dots on the screen creates a display of text in black and white. 


This technology offers two major advantages. Firstly, it is highly energy-efficient since energy is only required to move the particles from one position to another. Therefore, as long as the content displayed on the screen remains the same, no additional energy is required. Secondly, unlike traditional screens, these screens do not emit light but rather scatter ambient light, similar to paper. As a result, they offer a more comfortable reading experience, cause less eye strain, and can be read even under direct sunlight.


The technology uses electronic “ink”, where each pixel consists of a tiny capsule containing transparent fluid and two types of small particles. Electrophoretic display | Source: Science Photo Library


The Carbon Footprint of Books

A single e-book reader allows us to access an unlimited number of books, without the necessity to cut down trees for paper production or to physically transport books, which involves fuel consumption. At first glance, this appears to be an unparalleled green technology. But is this really so? Are digital books genuinely more environmentally friendly?

The response to this question isn't straightforward, as it largely depends on an individual’s reading habits. To gain a better understanding, we need to assess the environmental impact of printed books as compared to that of digital books. One way to do this is by measuring their respective carbon footprints, which is the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with a person, factory, country, or production process of a product, measured in weight units of carbon dioxide (CO2). Research in this field has shown that the carbon footprint of a single book printed on paper is 7.5 kg of CO2, while the carbon footprint of an e-book reader is 168 kg of CO2. This suggests that the production of an e-reader results in the emission of 22.5 times more CO2 than the production of a printed book. Thus, an individual who reads more than 23 books on their e-reader will have a lower carbon footprint in terms of CO2 emissions than someone who chooses to read printed books.

An estimator through which the environmental impact of printed books compared to digital ones can be measured. The carbon footprint of charcoal | Ink Drop, Shutterstock


Resources and Water

Another way to assess the environmental impact of printed books and digital books is by examining the extent of natural resource consumption. The printing industry, which relies on paper, involves cutting down many trees - trees that are important for maintaining a proper balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby slowing down global warming. However, in recent years, a significant portion of the paper used by the printing industry comes from trees specifically grown for this purpose, and when they are cut down, new ones are planted in their place.

Moreover, the printing industry consumes substantial amounts of water, utilizing about 8 liters of water per printed book. Additionally the use of toxic substances in paper bleaching, ink coloring, and binding contributed to the pollution of approximately 600 million cubic meters of water annually. Conversely, the production of an electronic book reader also requires a significant amount of natural resources. To produce a single e-reader, about 15 kilograms of mineral ores are required, from which rare elements, such as tantalum and cobalt, necessary for electronic components and batteries, are produced.  Furthermore, the production of an e-reader is responsible for polluting approximately 300 liters of water.

It is evident that both electronic book readers and printed books consume substantial natural resources and contribute to pollution. While the production of a single e-reader requires 40 times more water than that required to produce a printed book, as well as rare elements that must be extracted from the ground, it  does not involve tree felling. Furthermore, a single e-reader can be utilized to read thousands of books, reducing the need to produce new books continually.


The paper and printing industry consumes many natural resources and uses toxic substances. Pulp mill for paper production in Spain | Tony Mills, Shutterstock.


Recycling Options 

The discussion becomes slightly more complicated when considering the option of recycling printed books versus e-book readers. With the release of a new e-reader version into the market every few years, many users are eager to upgrade to the latest version, leading to the disposal of their old devices. Discarded e-readers constitute electronic waste, which is toxic and pollutes the soil, water, and air with substances such as lead, selenium, cadmium, and plastic particles. Although progress is being made  to enhance our ability for electronic waste recycling, it remains a costly and complicated process. Printed books, on the other hand, can serve for decades, and are considerably more straightforward to recycle.

It’s worth noting that the debate is not limited to these two options alone. Books can also be borrowed from public libraries, where each book can serve hundreds of different individuals over time.

In conclusion, both the production of printed books and the production of e-readers involve substantial natural resources consumption and environmental harm. When examining the environmental impact in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and water pollution, one e-reader is equivalent to 20-40 printed books. Moreover, the production of e-readers requires the use of metals and rare elements. Thus, when comparing the environmental impact of e-readers versus printed books, it's essential to consider the number of books that a single user intends to read before replacing their e-reader. If you're planning to use an electronic reader to read 40 or more books, then an e-reader becomes a “greener” choice compared to purchasing and reading 40 printed books.