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Are eBooks Better for the Environment?

In January of 2011, Microcosm Publishing offered a service where customers could exchange the Kindle that they had received for the holidays for an equitable value of our books. The campaign was a huge success and we receive calls six years later asking if we are still offering the exchange. But the most confusing aspect of the news cycle that followed was the “investigating journalism” that tracked “the real impact of e-readers vs paperbacks.” I devoured dozens of articles on this subject and each one looked solely at the carbon impact of each format, the expected life cycle of a book versus an e-reader, and a handful even examined the long-term eye damage and quality of experience while using e-readers. Mother Jones concluded that the comparison was close but that the most ethical choice was to check physical books out of the library. I would second their endorsement of the library; in every case I found myself frustrated and tossing incredulous glances at the screen. Why were these articles focusing solely on carbon? The issues that seemed the biggest to me, like conflict minerals and clean drinking water, were not even mentioned.

I had contacted a few magazines that had run articles with this question and offered my own articles to a few other publications that seemed invested in the subject. Typically, the answer was either that the resources involved to draw a comprehensive picture was either too complicated for the story or for the readers. One source told me that they thought it would be too depressing for readers to understand the global impact of their e-reader, as it would also make them feel guilty for using an iPhone or laptop with similar ethical quandaries. It took five years before I found a technology news and views outlet, TeleRead, that was willing to present my comprehensive look at this issue.

Just one feather-weight e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals, according to a New York Times op-ed. A key metal is cobalt. While cobalt comes out of mines in Russia, Australia, Zambia, and China, most of the cobalt that is used in e-readers (as well as personal computers and smartphones) comes from the “Democratic” Republic of the Congo. The Congo is one of the most intense sites of colonialism over the past 400 years, resulting in few labor standards and many layers of wealth disparity and corruption. The result is that cobalt is typically mined by children and slaves for very low wages and results in asthma and pneumonia. For some reason, the Obama administration passed a law in 2010 that weakened regulation, ruling that cobalt is not a “conflict mineral.” This means that over the past five years the U.S. no longer polices supply chains of cobalt like it does with blood diamonds or gold. The result is that mining the mineral finances civil wars in the Congo and around Africa, forcing child soldiers into combat and U.S. companies are not forced to remove conflict minerals from their supply chains.

Intel has created a supply chain for its processors and circuits that it guarantees is conflict free; but other companies like Apple and Amazon — the maker of the Kindle — have not. Amazon says it “is committed to avoiding the use of minerals that have fueled conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country. We expect suppliers to support our effort to identify the origin of designated minerals used in our products.” But the company has not committed to this responsible sourcing themselves. If Amazon, which constitutes roughly 60–70% of e-book sales, was actually sourcing provably conflict-free minerals, you would be guaranteed to see them touting this as a proud marketing handle instead of passing the responsibility onto their suppliers and burying the issue in sideways blame-pointing. Amazon is also one of the few electronics manufacturers that sells their devices as a loss leader on the eventual hopes that the leasing of e-books (yes, DRMed books are simply leased books, not truly owned books) will eventually make up for it.

We inquired about the issue with Mark Dummett, Advisor at Amnesty International, explained that their 2015 child labor research traced the supply lines upstream through the seven steps from the mines to the end users. Dummett said it’s possible that Amazon is using child labor in their extraction of raw materials for Kindle, particularly for their batteries (see page 55 of the report), but they could not prove it. He explained that it’s typical for a manufacturer not to take responsibility for their sourcing and they tend to bury the findings if they discover child labor in their supply chains. The evidence is not bulletproof, but consider this: If Amazon wanted to, they could make a similar commitment to Intel’s and investigate their supply chains, not working with mines that employ child labor or finance civil wars. Better yet, Congress could be regulating the use of cobalt as a conflict mineral and force U.S. companies to use ethically sourced materials like they do with diamonds.

Ryan Wilcoxen, who has worked in supply chain management for ten years explains, “When manufacturing electronics, the different companies involved are usually spread out across the globe and despite what we might hope, visibility into the origin of goods is really poor and inconsistent, despite the required paperwork and reporting for transporting shipments. The companies will likely know which suppliers provide them components and intermediate materials and how a shipment got from one source to one destination. But when you begin to trace the full end-to-end movement of goods there may 5–7 or more echelons of suppliers that process and transport the commodities to a point that an electronics manufacturer can consume them to produce the tablets, phones, radios, or other goods consumers would recognize. So it’s not surprising to me that suppliers would point their fingers at one another — my guess is that they don’t actually know with certainty where a lot of the commodities or sub-components that end up in the electronics are coming from because the multiple tiers in the supply chain obscure that visibility.”

From Africa, the cobalt is typically shipped 6,000 miles to a factory in China. Next, up to 79 gallons of clean drinking water are ruined in processing and the unused and unclean waste if dumped in a landfill. The manufacturing process releases about 65 pounds of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming that also causes asthma in the factories.

While most hardcover books are printed in Asia, most paperbacks are printed in the U.S.. This information is freely available if you refer to a book’s inside cover before you make your purchase. Again, the principal reason for this is that the U.S. is able to impose basic wages and quality of life standards for labor within its borders. Of course, many uninformed Internet commenters make the logical assumption that books are made by cutting down trees. However, this hasn’t been true for many decades. Virtually no books printed in the U.S. are being printed on virgin paper in 2016 — or even were in 2011. This is because our continent isn’t as forested as it once was and it’s just not practical to grow trees to cut them down for paper. Virtually all paper pulp came from a tree that was cut down many, many years ago and lives a circular life through the magic of recycling. There are agencies that oversee post-consumer reuse standards for new paper and you can review the post-consumer waste content of recycled paper now. Even a 30% PCW paper stock has the remainder of its paper pulp mixed from the cutting room floor of the printer. Sure, carbon is consumed in the process of recycling the paper stock but the existing reporting covers this, often overstating its impact.

Books are moved around mostly by freight trucks, which seems to have a similar impact to that of the file servers that host e-books (and of course cannot begin to compare to the carbon footprint of shipping eReaders across the globe — twice.)

Overall, some studies are beginning to notice that e-readers have a much greater impact on carbon emissions, global warming, and kilowatt hours than reading books does. Of course, this does not take into account the high rates of disposal to upgrade to the latest models or the toxic nature of properly dismantling the devices (also done in third world factories) to prevent the contaminants from wreaking further havoc on the earth.

TLDR: Paper books have a vast ecological advantage over any digital product. If you must use an e-reader, buy a used one and keep using it until it won’t work anymore.