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Books from an environmental perspective—Part 2: e-books as an alternative to paper books

Abstract

Purpose

Information and communication technology (ICT) has been proposed as a means to facilitate environmental sustainability. Dematerialisation is one potential way of doing this. For books, this could be realized through using e-book readers, which share many of the qualities of printed media and have notably low-energy requirements during use. The main aim of this study was to analyse the environmental impacts of an e-book read on an e-book reader, and to identify key issues determining the magnitude of the impact. A second aim was to compare the e-book product system with a paper book product system using a life cycle perspective.

Materials and methods

A screening LCA was performed on an e-book produced and read in Sweden. The e-book reader was assumed to be produced in China. The data used were general data from Ecoinvent 2.0 and site-specific data from companies participating in the study, whenever average data were not available.

Results and discussion

The results showed that production of the e-book reader was the life cycle step contributing most to the environmental impact of the system studied, although data on the e-ink screen were lacking. The disposal phase leads to avoided impact as materials are recycled; however, these results are less certain due to limited data availability. When the e-book was compared with a paper book, the results indicated that the number of books read on the e-book reader during its lifetime was crucial when evaluating its environmental performance compared with paper books. The results indicate that there are impact categories and circumstances where paper books are preferable to e-books from an environmental perspective and vice versa.

Conclusions

There is no single answer as to which book is better from an environmental perspective according to the results of the current study. To improve the e-book environmental performance, an e-book reader should be used frequently, the life time of the device should be prolonged, as far as possible, and when not in use anymore, the device should be disposed of in a proper way, making material recycling possible. In addition, the production of the e-reader should be energy efficient and striving towards minimisation of toxic and rare substances.

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Acknowledgements

This screening LCA study was performed in collaboration with company representatives from the publisher Bonnierförlagen, the internet shop Adlibris and Elib, a producer and distributor of digital books, and the Swedish Media Association with experience of e-paper devices. These stakeholders participated in the definition of the goal and scope, data gathering and the interpretation of the results. The authors wish to thank the participating companies and organisations, and the Vinnova Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Communications for funding this study. In addition, several people were very helpful in providing information on different processes, etc. The authors are most grateful for their assistance.

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Correspondence to Åsa Moberg.

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Moberg, Å., Borggren, C. & Finnveden, G. Books from an environmental perspective—Part 2: e-books as an alternative to paper books. Int J Life Cycle Assess 16, 238–246 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-011-0255-0

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Keywords

  • Book
  • e-book
  • e-paper
  • e-book reader
  • Internet
  • Printed media