New Report Finds Kindle Greener than Physical Books… Really?

2. The number of e-books the average user is reading?

This is also an important figure required for the analysis, as it helps to estimate the effectiveness of the Kindle in replacing paper books. The author decided to use the estimation of Forrester, which is that each consumer purchases three e-books a month, or total of 36 e-books a year. She then explains: “..so by adopting Forrester’s rate of three e-books a month, we forecast that the average consumer would purchase 144 e-books in four years, potentially displacing 1,074 kg of CO2.”

Based on that number and the assumption that every 1.6 e-books purchased replace 1 paper book, she gets to the figure of 22.5 books a year which is the breakeven point – you read more on your Kindle and you’re making it officially a greener alternative.

But will users read so many e-books? I doubt. This number is related to the number of books readers read (unless your assumption is that readers will read much more when they switch to e-books which is not the case here) and the number of books read in average tell a different story.

According to the report 1 billion books are sold every year in the U.S. With a population of about 300 million people it means every person in the U.S. is reading about 3.3 books a year (including babies which actually have many books, sometimes more than the average adult..). So as you can see there’s some difference between 3.3 books per a person, which is based on real figures and the estimation of the report – 36 books per a person.

Now, it might be that Forrester’s estimation (36 books) is correct, but it relates only to the avid readers which are the early adopters of the Kindle devices. What can happen to this number of books when 14.5 million units of e-readers will be sold in 2012? the report explains “Forrester estimates that each consumer purchases three e-books a month but that the average will drop when lower e-reader prices entice casual readers. Alternately, average purchases could increase as more books become available in electronic forms.”

Still, is it OK to use the figure of 36 books per a year as the average number of books read by users? How many people you know who read 3 books every month? I decided to further check it and found a survey of AP in 2007 that found the following: “A quarter of US adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll. The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year and, excluding those who had not read any books at all, the usual number of books read was seven.”

Another source is the ‘Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry‘, which mentions that 3.1 billion books were sold in 2006, which is an average of about 10 books per a person.

So even if we take the higher alternative estimation of 10 books per a year, we get that instead of getting fully offset after the first year of use, a Kindle is getting offset only after 2.25 years of use.

The bottom line of the report is very clear:

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.

So is the debate over? I’m afraid not. As much as the report contributes to clarify the debate on how green are e-readers, there are still some issues that need to be finalized as I showed here. I’m afraid that declaring the Kindle as a clear winner is still too early. The key to the podium is still in hands of Amazon – if they’ll provide us with their data on the Kindle’s footprint and maybe even life cycle analysis it would be then the right time to claim a winner.

  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
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