“Given that paper accounts for a quarter of all landfill volume, it should probably come as no surprise that a recent study touted e-books as more environmentally friendly than traditional publishing. A report released this month by the San Francisco-based Cleantech Group found that Amazon’s Kindle device could generate a net savings in carbon emissions—a savings that increases as print consumption is displaced.”
Now wait just a doggone minute. No one is going to believe that books account for a quarter of landfill volume, but as the article plays out, that’s what is implied. It implies that the printing of books is putting paper in landfills. Baloney.
I have worked in corporate offices, and that’s where a lot of this comes from. Companies print vast tracts of documents – reports, spreadsheets, memos, e-mails – God only knows what – that is actually readable on computer screens. Then they throw it away. Seriously, people print out e-mails, then sit there, at the desk, and read them. This is analogous to packing your dinner in Styrofoam at home, then sitting down and eating it.
And how much of that paper in landfills is junk mail? The amount that I alone receive is enough to make me angry. I pull it out of the mailbox, and before I even climb the stairs, I walk down the alley and toss it in the recycle bin. How many millions of people are tossing it in the garbage instead, and sending it straight to the landfill?
Seriously, how much of the paper in the landfills is books, or even magazines that people paid hard cash for? And how much of what is could be reduced by pounding harder on people’s skulls to get them to recycle?
The article goes on to explore the benefits of using Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader, including the carbon impacts of its manufacture, as compared to the environmental impacts of book and newspaper manufacture. And I’m sure that the Kindle is a nice toy. But as the article says, the study assumes that people who use the Kindle would otherwise be buying a lot more books than I do, or anyone I know. Add to this the fact that at least some people who buy books like to keep them, not throw them away, and that a book can be shared in ways that the content of a Kindle cannot, and we have a different conversation.
The article continues:
As the figures suggest, the study relies on the theory that Kindle owners are reducing an already higher-than-average consumption of printed matter in favor of digital substitutes. “A user that purchasers fewer than 22.5 books per year would take longer to neutralize the emissions resulting from the e-reader,” Ritch wrote, “and even longer to help reduce emissions attributed to the publishing industry.” The report also rests on the probably unrealistic assumption that users will hang on to their Kindles for a full four years before adding them to the growing accumulation of technological waste.
Right. Only people who otherwise read and discard a lot of books could make a meaningful impact by switching to e-books, and they need to keep at it for a long time before throwing the device itself in the trash.
I think if we want to reduce the paper in the landfills, we should slash the amount of unmitigated crap that’s printed out, but which never needed to be stored on sheets of tree in the first place. And by raising public awareness of books as generally contributing positively to culture and personal quality of life. A book can be a worthy, illuminating thing, worth keeping and passing along. Or not.
Finally, it bears noting that if I have three books on my desk at a given moment, at least one very likely came from the local library, and chances are it’s going back. They may have to send someone to pry it from my obstinate clutches; especially since, right now, I’m reading this. Slowly.