For people who love environmentally friendly products, e-readers pose a quandary. On one hand, they are filled with hard-to-recycle parts; on the other hand, they save the need to use trees to create more print books. A new trend in the industry, putting textbooks into digital formats, has added a new element to this discussion. Now, e-readers are becoming an environmentally friendly option, especially for college students or parents of college students.
Recently, the New York Times reported on this trend. While many books are being sold in digital copies now, textbooks have been lagging behind other types of books. Yet textbooks are starting to make a dent in the e-book field. While the majority of textbooks are still read on paper, the iPad and Kindle are working hard to make digital textbooks a viable option. Through services like rental digital books or texts that can be stored in the Cloud, more and more students are starting to see the benefit of digital textbooks.
One of those benefits is the ability to add interactive elements to textbooks. With the NOOK study app, for instance, not only can the user read texts online, but they can also write notes, search multiple books at the same time, highlight text, and save bits of text for later reference. Students may prefer these digital texts because they could save students money, and with more students enrolled in distance or online degree programs, interactive texts offer students an enhanced, hands-on experience similar to a traditional classroom.
But the question remains: Are digital textbooks more environmentally friendly than print options? Environmental activists often argue that the electronic parts in the e-readers are more damaging to the environment than print books, particularly because most readers usually buy a print book, read it and sometimes pass it on to another person, or they just wait until it gets to their library and not buy it at all.
Additionally the carbon footprint of most e-readers is quite high, and while an e-reader may have a long user life, many consumers choose to upgrade before their e-readers have stopped working. In a report on Triple Pundit, the CEO of Eco-Libris (Reference 2) indicated that it takes about 40 books for the carbon footprint of an e-reader to be offset by the books it saves. For the average consumer, this can mean many years before the product becomes a more eco-friendly option than print books.
But textbooks are a different story. Students who take a class must have a textbook in order to do well in the class. Some students will be able to sell their texts to other students, but the textbooks get updated so quickly that this type of recycling can only happen for a year or two. The result is hundreds of thousands of texts that students no longer need, and those books are not the small paperback novels a typical consumer reads. They are long, thick textbooks that make a huge dent in the production of paper worldwide.
In light of this, e-readers may be a more environmentally friendly option for textbooks. In spite of the waste they produce and the difficulty in recycling them at the end of their life, the new market for digital textbooks can help lower our overall consumption of paper, thus making them something those who love the environment can stand behind.
Lindsey Paho is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis. She writes on behalf of Colorado Technical University.