Paper books, e-books or audiobooks? Which has the lowest footprint?

Most of us are stuck at home and have been so for, at least, the past few weeks. Being “bored in the house and in the house bored” we crave all types of time-filling activities and entertainment. One of my favourite quarantine hobbies has been reading, especially books about climate change

Paper books, e-books or Audiobooks

I love reading and I always have. I have read hundreds of books throughout my young life. Recently, having had all this free time at home, I started thinking about the environmental impact that my hobby has had. Should I read paperbacks or books on an e-reader? Or is it better to listen to audiobooks instead of using any screen time to read them? Faced with all these almost existential questions I did some research, and I am here to show you what I learned.

Paper books, e-books or audiobooks? Which has the lowest footprint?

At first sight, we might think “e-readers are much more environmentally friendly, we only need 1 ! ”, but the true answer is a bit more complicated than that. First of all, we need to take into account the production of the e-reader. The raw materials and process of making an e-reader (energy & water) equals producing 40 or 50 physical books.

This might lead us to think “ok, then if I read more than 50 books on my e-reader, I’m already saving the planet, right?”. Again, not that simple. The emissions created by a single e-reader, including its production and the energy needed to charge it, equal about 100 physical books. So, in theory, if you read 100 books on your e-reader before upgrading it, you are having the same effect on climate as if reading new physical books. If you read more than that, you are already having a positive impact.

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We compared physical books with e-books, but what about the audible versions? If we think about it, audiobooks probably have the lowest footprint of all. First, there is no need to produce any physical object (like the book or the e-reader). You can simply listen to them on your phone or laptop. The audio files are probably larger than the text ones (and data storage also has an environmental impact), but this is most likely compensated by the fact that no physical transportation or shipping is needed. In terms of energy, charging your device, every day, you listen to your audiobook on will probably not increase the waste much.

After reading this, some thoughts might be going through your head right now: “but I love the smell of paper books”, or “I can’t concentrate on a book only by listening”, or even “I don’t like reading on screens”. Hang on! Even if you are not ready to make a big change in your reading device, there are still other things you can do.

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  1. Borrow, don’t buy! Borrowing a physical book from a library or a friend is the most environmentally friendly option of all. It has already been produced and there is no added footprint for you to read it too.
  2. Buy second hand or swap. Similar to the above, you are not contributing to the production of a new book, so it is a carbon-neutral decision. A lot of cities around the world already host swapping events, where you can bring books you have read and swap them for ones you are interested in reading.
  3. Don’t throw books away! If you don’t want a book anymore, donate it to a friend, a library or a charity organization.
  4. If you buy an e-reader, make it worth it. Ensure you have read at least 100 books on it before upgrading. However, ideally, use it until it stops working.
  5. Buy from eco-conscious vendors. This can mean supporting a small local business or searching for publishers who use an eco-friendly process.
  6. Avoid buying online. And, if you do, buy a bigger quantity, so it ‘is worth it’.
  7. Read about relevant topics. Since we are talking about reading, make sure you choose topics that matter, such as books about climate change or sustainability.

No one is a perfect environmental hero, and small changes already can have a huge impact. Whether you are willing to make a big change or not, remember: the most environmentally-friendly object is the one you already own!

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