Amazon, the largest bookseller in the U.S., recently announced that sales of its electronic Kindle books are now outpacing its sales of paperbacks. This announcement marks a turning point in the digital information age, and reveals how our relationship to the environment is changing as a result. Replacing printed books with electronic books will reduce demands for wood resource and reduce the environmental impacts of printing books. On the other hand, as we move towards an age of completely digital media, there are also new types of environmental impacts to be wary of.
The news of this digital takeover is not particularly shocking to those who have been observing the growing popularity of electronic books. Looking back on Amazon’s sales in 2010, for every 100 paperbacks sold, 115 Kindle e-books were sold. The rate of electronic book sales has been outpacing hardcover book sales on Amazon since July 2010. As the largest bookseller, Amazon serves as a model for an overall trend for many booksellers. According to the Association of American Publishers, total U.S. e-book sales from January-August 2010 were $263 million, an increase of 193% from the same period in 2009. This increase is thanks to digital devices like the iPad and improvements to the Kindle and other electronic reading devices.
So what does this digital transition mean for the environment? If we can reduce our production of printed books, the ecological benefits would be enormous. Every tangible book produced requires heavy use of chemicals, fuel, and wood pulp resources. Printed books are often manufactured overseas and shipped across long distances, adding up to significant fuel demands and carbon emissions. E-books, on the other hand, are downloaded electronically and do not require cutting trees, nor do they create emissions through transport. Although electricity is required to read them, the energy demands are incomparable to those entailed by the manufacturing of a printed book. The result is an eco-friendly digital format that leaves little waste behind.
We should be wary, though, to assume that this transition will instantly resolve existing environmental problems. Paper for books makes up less than 10% of the products produced from timber, so the switch to e-books is not going to resolve existing threats of deforestation. The vast majority of paper is produced for newspapers and business documents, which are still printed in great numbers. Plus, electronic devices themselves are fuel-heavy to produce, and can create hazardous waste if not recycled properly. Those with e-readers should try to dedicate to switching to digital and recycle the device properly in order to avoid negative impacts. Digital devices and e-readers can contaminate soil and organisms with their metals and chemicals, if not disposed of properly. As of now, we are sitting on the brink of digital takeover, and we still need to change our habits and mindset to truly benefit from the change as we move forward.
Environmental benefits aside, the transition to digital is not unanimously embraced, although the social benefits of the change are extraordinary. Some book lovers feel that the the pre-formatted experience of an e-reader does not compare to the intimate experience of reading a tangible book. But as we move deeper into a technological and “green” era, the printing of millions of books is not a viable option any longer. Too many books are left uncreased and unread on bookshelves, while digital books promise to eliminate this waste of energy and resources. Furthermore, digital books will increase accessibility, particularly textbooks for students, by reducing cost. Digital books promise not just a healthier and greener physical environment, but an improved social environment where information and education is more available to all.
With the digital age upon us, exciting prospects also raise new questions and issues. It seems that the solution for one of the greatest environmental issues of our time -deforestation- has a solution as we transition more and more to electronic media. While its easy to assume we’re nearly there, we must remember that with every big change in culture comes a need for readjustment. New kinds of environmental problems will be raised, and we will need to address them with new recycling and information programs so we can continue to maintain a clean and healthy world.