New Report Finds Kindle Greener than Physical Books… Really?

This post was originally published on Eco-Libris blog on September 5.

On August 19 Cleantech Group published a report that was supposed to put an end to an ongoing debate on the question if the Kindle and other e-readers are actually greener than physical books. The release’s title was “E-readers a win for carbon emissions.”

It was supposed to be the life cycle analysis many people, including myself were waiting for. I have to admit I was very excited to read about it as we follow this debate for a long time. I decided to read it and see if this is really it. If it’s really over.

The report, entitled ‘The Environmental Impact of Amazon’s Kindle’ was written by senior reporter Emma Ritch. I read the executive brief (7-page long) and was happy to find a well-written analysis that integrates many pieces of information that together create a more coherent picture. At the same time I wasn’t that sure about the validity of the findings.

There were two main issues that bothered me mostly: the carbon footprint of a single Kindle and the assumption about the number of e-books the average user is reading. As you’ll see these are important factors in the analysis and have significant influence on the findings.

Here are my thoughts about them in more details:

1. What’s the carbon footprint of a single Kindle?

This is an important part of the analysis – you can’t have a comparison between physical books and the Kindle without this figure. But fortunately the report has it: “…the second-generation Kindle represents the same emissions as 15 books bought in person or 30 purchased online. That would yield a range of between 60.2 to 306 kg of CO2, or an average of 167.78 kg of CO2 during its lifespan.”

The problem is with this estimate (Kindle has the same emissions as 15 books bought in person or 30 purchased online). This is not a figure provided by Amazon. The report is explaining that “Amazon declined to provide information about its manufacturing process or carbon footprint”. This report takes this figure from a “Los Angeles-based architecture and construction firm Marmol Radziner Prefab used the IDC lifecycle analysis calculator.”

I went on to check how Marmol Radziner Prefab came out with this number if Amazon doesn’t provide any data and found on their website that “One of our architects recently gave the calculator a whirl by estimating the carbon footprint of Amazon’s new Kindle Wireless Reading Device. ” OK, but how did he do it? they explain: “He answered a few questions and found that the Kindle has the same footprint as 30 paperbacks ordered from Amazon’s store. So if you’re going to read more than 30 books on your Kindle, it’s greener to purchase the digital reader than the paper copies.”

Given the fact that Amazon doesn’t provide any data (well, we have to say the report mention that Amazon has established a recycling program by mail for Kindle and its batteries to prevent the improper disposal of e-waste), this figure looks to me as a guestimation. In any case, an experimental use of an architect with the IDC lifecycle analysis calculator is far from being something you can take into an account in an analysis, especially when you don’t have any second or third sources to verify it.

You can see how vague this figure is from the attempts of Green Inc. blog to figure it out. They tried to check it with Amazon and got no response (why is Amazon so unresponsive about it? Would it be easier and better for them to be transparent about it??)

They also checked with Casey Harrell, an international campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, which monitors the environmental impact of consumer electronics, who said e-readers remain something of an unknown variable. “In terms of the Kindle or other similar e-book gadgets, I don’t know what chemicals are in or out,” Mr. Harrell said. “Companies will want to brag about their eco-credentials, so if you don’t see any mention, they’ve probably not been eliminated.”

To show you how game changing this figure is let’s say the figure is not 15/30 books but 30/60 books. Then an average Kindle will emit 335.6 kg of CO2 instead of 168 kg during its lifespan. The meaning of the change of this figure is that the number of actual physical books offset per year per e-reader jumps from 22.5 to 45. It means that each reader will become greener than paper books only after it will replace 45 books and not 23 books.

The author, Emma Ritch, said to Green Inc. blog about the e-books that “The key is they displace the purchase of 22.5 physical books.” Following the uncertainty about the Kindle’s carbon footprint, we have no way to know if this figure is the right key. Right now it looks like only Amazon has the right key and we still don’t know what it is.

  1. russ

    It should not be hard to determine if one unit is torn down – I doubt there is any unique components in the Kindle.

    Companies must love it when someone from a green blog calls demanding information. There can’t be more than a few thousand self appointed green ‘analysts’ out there. Most of them would not be able to tell the front end of a donkey from the rear.

  2. Ben Regnier

    Hello, this is Ben Regnier. I’m the MRP employee that made the original investigation with the IDC Calculator. This was done independently of my work with MRP – the original post is here:


    You can see in the post above the limits of my assumptions – I made well reasoned guesses on the makeup of the object (using other electronics as a guide) and had approximate construction and warehousing locations. That being said, this was done over the weekend as a (fairly intensive) exploration of the calculator software and should not in any way be interpreted as a scientific study. As you can see in my post, the biggest surprise came in the enormous disparity in carbon footprint between books purchased online and at a store (assuming one drives to the store).

    I am a little bit shocked that Cleantech would appropriate this post without at least asking me about how I got the number, or simply doing a few hours’ more research on their own and getting a more accurate result from the calculator themselves. Much more rigor should as well go into the lifecycle study of paperback books, particularly factoring in overproduction and the costs of warehousing and recycling the unsold stock.

    I hope this helps to unravel a few of the questions you had, and I want to congratulate you on digging deep enough to find my kernel in that report, and bringing it to my attention. Keep up the good work!

  3. George Burke

    Hi Raz– so you’re a writer on here too!

    Let me tell you, I’m happy to see you dig up the validity behind this report. If EcoLibris.net has taught me anything, it’s all about how we can diminish the environmental impact left by the publishing industry through replanting trees. I embrace your philosophy and smile that we’ve helped plant a few trees with Raz’s organization, Ecolibris.

    Continual redistribution of used books, like book rental, is also something to be looked at for sustainability and “green reading”.

    -George Burke
    BookSwim.com Online Rental

  4. Brendan @ PlentyWays

    Its always going to be a hard comparison to make. For example, what about estimating the carbon footprint of travel for people going to book stores and back. On a kindle, its next to nothing, but if you happened to drive 10 miles just to get a book, it would make a significant difference to the overall impact.


  5. Emma Ritch

    I wrote the report and just would like to respond to Ben (above) who did the lifecycle analysis while he was at Marmol Radziner Prefab. I contacted the firm numerous times, and I spoke with an official who declined to give me the name of the employee who did the LCA, but he described the process Ben listed above in his comment. I apologize for not contacting him directly, but I was never able to find out who he was.

    To Ben’s point that we should have performed our own LCA, I agree that one is necessary for a definitive answer. The report specifically says that all the findings are estimations, and it calls for a lab or other qualified entity to perform the LCA. This report started an important discussion that will hopefully inspire others to find concrete answers.

    Another major part of the report that you don’t mention here is the projections for sales of e-readers and the corresponding potential reduction of carbon emissions. Sales are already skyrocketing, so any impact–good or bad–is going to be multiplied by the sheer number of the devices being produced. With e-waste and physical books both having significant environmental impacts, it helps keep in perspective just how important it is to understand how the environment could be affected.

  6. Barbie Painter

    How about including audiobooks. My eyes don’t last as long as my ears. My company supplies me with a Blackberry, and recycles eWaste. Last year I had spinal surgery, could not lift or hold much, including books. I enjoyed 211 audiobooks, most free from the New York City Public Library.

    And yes, book trading, http://www.paperbackswap.com.
    * Books Available: 4,471,766
    * Books Posted in last 60 minutes: 540
    * Books Posted All Time: 15,498,858
    * Unique Titles Available: 621,041

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *