Study paints Kindle e-reader a dark shade of green

Are electronic readers better for the environment? An analysis by the Cleantech Group finds, when used to replace paper, Amazon's Kindle is less polluting over its lifetime.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read

Claims that the Amazon Kindle electronic reader is more environmentally friendly than paper books hold up, according to an analysis by the Cleantech Group.

The research and media company drew on existing studies to do a lifecycle analysis and found that the carbon emissions from electronic books are far lower than traditional book publishing.

Taking into account the manufacturing and mining required to produce an electronic device still gives the Amazon Kindle a significant edge, according to the study which was done by Emma Ritch.

"The roughly 168 kg of CO2 produced throughout the Kindle's lifecycle is a clear winner against the potential savings: 1,074 kg of CO2 if replacing three books a month for four years; and up to 26,098 kg of CO2 when used to the fullest capacity of the Kindle DX. Less-frequent readers attracted by decreasing prices still can break even at 22.5 books over the life of the device," she wrote in conclusion.

Cleantech Group

E-readers aren't typically marketed as environmentally sound, but their environmental impact is now becoming a topic of discussion and research.

In a test, six colleges in the U.S. will make textbooks available on the Kindle DX specifically to use less paper. "Sustainability is the driving force behind Princeton using the Kindle," a representative told The New York Times in May.

Still, there are some obvious environmental drawbacks to using electronic devices--production of a Kindle produces 168 kilograms of carbon dioxide compared to 7.46 kilograms for a book, the Cleantech Group says citing various sources. Like reading a newspaper on a PC, electronic readers need electricity to run.

Electronic waste, too, is a growing problem many tech gadget owners have yet to fully address. On this point, Amazon has said that it will establish a recycling program for the Kindle and its battery by mail to reduce electronic waste.

The Cleantech Group argues that the electronic reader industry can make a significant impact once people start transitioning from paper media en masse: "A user that purchasers fewer than 22.5 books per year would take longer to neutralize the emissions resulting from the e-reader, and even longer to help reduce emissions attributed to the publishing industry," according to the study.

Intuitively, the basic conclusion of the Cleantech Group analysis makes sense: the more you reduce your use of paper media in a single electronic device, the less you'll pollute by harvesting and shipping physical goods. But as with many proposed "fixes" to environmental problems, there are trade-offs.

Ultimately, it comes down to how an e-reader is used. If a person continues to buy books and print periodicals and doesn't recycle the product, the environmental impact could potentially be negative, according to this study.