Sustainable Reading Rules

This is my catch-up reading week.  Before I can get to The Economist’s “World in 2012″ I have a dozen 2011 editions still to read.  I also have a stack of books on my wish list to polish off before I can start 2012 informed and ready to go.

This year I bought an iPad and a Kindle, so I have a least 4 options for accessing all this content; buy the e-book, order on Amazon, drive to Barnes and Noble, or borrow from the library.  I wondered if there is a meaningful sustainability impact between each of these options so I did some research to establish my own best practices.  Here are my sustainable reading rules for this holiday season.

Option 1
If your desired book/magazine is available at your local library then this is by far the most sustainable option.  One caveat – if you have to drive more than a few miles to the library then the sustainability benefit is lost due to emissions from your car.

Option 2
If you already own an iPad or Kindle, then the impact of buying the e-version of a book, magazine or newspaper is much lower than the impact of the paper version you could order from Amazon or buy at Barnes and Noble.

Research published in the Guardian estimates the CO2e emissions of a newspaper or magazine range from 4-10 lbs, depending on the type of paper stock, whether it’s recycled or land filled, the energy efficiency of the paper mill, and the transportation distance.  Similarly, the average CO2e emissions of a paper book are 9 lbs, according to the Green Press Initiative.

To incentivize readers to make this switch to more sustainable reading, one of our portfolio companies, Recyclebank, recently partnered with Barnes and Noble to provide reward points for switching to e-books.

Option 3
If you don’t already own an e-reader, then you might be able to justify buying one for reading books/magazines more sustainably, but this depends on how many books/magazines you will read on it.  So how many books/magazines does it take to offset the emissions of an iPad or Kindle and allow you to play Angry Birds free from carbon guilt?

Apple has published a detailed environmental analysis of the impact of the iPad and iPad2.    They estimate the life cycle CO2 emissions of these devices to be 286 and 231 lbs, respectively.  This is broken down in the figure below.

Source of iPad2 Carbon Emissions

Comparing these emissions with the impact of paper books suggests that buying 20-30 e-books instead of paper books will offset the emissions from producing, shipping and using an iPad.  In a 2010 New York Times opinion piece Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris argue that when other factors such as health and societal impact are considered, one probably needs to offset 50-100 paper books with e-books to fully balance the impact of an iPad.  If you also switch to receiving your newspapers electronically, the offset will happen much quicker.  Substituting a daily delivered broadsheet for e-newspapers offsets the emissions of an iPad within a few months.

Unfortunately, the equivalent data for Kindle devices is not available.  During its 2011 annual shareholder meeting, Amazon rejected a measure proposed by Calvert Asset Management for more disclosure on how the company deals with climate change.  Amazon claimed that preparing a climate-change report would not be “an efficient use of time and resources.”  For a company with $34B in sales to claim that it doesn’t have the resources to conduct a $100,000 LCA of its products isn’t credible and I suspect we’ll see some CO2e numbers from Amazon in 2012.

If you decide to buy a Kindle/iPad for reading e-books, magazines and newspapers, make sure to maximize its useful life.   If you want to upgrade to the iPad3, Kindle Fire, or next Nook, that’s fine, but make sure to trade in your old device so someone else can continue reading e-books on the device.  At Physic Ventures, we’re delighted to see another of our portfolio companies, Gazelle.com, experiencing fantastic growth providing exactly this type of consumer electronics recommerce service.  Another sustainable, and cheaper, alternative is to buy a used device on Gazelle’s store.

Option 4
If you decide to stick with paper books, check out some of the great new collaborative consumption companies, like swap.com, that provide access to a wide range of used books.

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