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Issues of the Environment: The ecological impacts of reading and how best to make a difference for the environment

Gregory Keoleian
University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability
Gregory Keoleian


  • In honor of Dr. Seuss' birthday, March is designated as National Reading Month. A month-long marathon of reading activities is going on in Washtenaw County classrooms, but the initiative is not limited to students. The goal is to motivate Americans of all ages to read every day.
  • Reading has been shown to reduce stress and increase cognition, and it is fundamental to education and personal development. But, are books bad for the planet? Are e-readers any better? Recent analyses that compared the life cycle of books vs. e-readers show it depends on how much you read in a year.
  • The paper-making process is not great for the environment.“ Paper production encompasses harvesting trees, pulpwood and pulp production, bleaching, sheet forming, drying, and cutting,” says Gregory A. Keoleian, the director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. “Papermaking is a water resource-intensive process and a variety of chemicals are used in the pulping and bleaching process, resulting in air and water pollutant emissions.”  (Source; https://www.popsci.com/environment/books-ereader-sustainability/) Fortunately, paper used in books is usually grown sustainably, books can be reused, and paper can be recycled.
  • E-readers save trees, but other natural resources are harvested to create them, including lithium, copper, and cobalt, which are limited resources that require destructive strip mining. Then there is the energy component. According to a New York Times analysis, “The e-reader’s manufacture, along a vast supply chain of consumer electronics, is relatively energy-hungry, using 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels and resulting in 66 pounds of carbon dioxide. For a single book, which, recycled or not, requires energy to form and dry the sheets, it’s just two kilowatt hours, and 100 times fewer greenhouse gases.” This doesn’t include the electricity to charge an electronic device or to store the information for retrieval.
  • Gregory A. Keoleian, Director, Center for Sustainable Systems at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability, conducts numerous life-cycle comparisons to determine the true environmental costs of products. He says that the break even point for books vs. e-readers is about 60 books per year. You can reduce your literary carbon footprint more by borrowing books or e-readers from the library, buying used books, and donating unneeded items to those who will use them. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to another edition of issues of the environment. I'm David Fair, and if you're like me, you'd love to read. Now what does that have to do with the environment, you ask? Well, quite a bit, actually. Think of where paper comes from. And now in the digital age, a lot of folks are doing a good portion of the reading online and via e-readers. That has some repercussions too. Our guest today is Greg Keoleian. Greg is director of Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. He spent a lot of time looking at the life cycles of products and the true impacts they have on the environment. And, Greg, thank you for the time today.

Greg Keoleian: Look forward to talking to you about books and e-readers.

David Fair: Well, to start on kind of a personal note, do you prefer reading hard copy books, or have you kind of transition more to being an e-reader?

Greg Keoleian: Well, I am an e-reader because more of my reading is about scientific journal articles.

David Fair: Right.

Greg Keoleian: But I also have hard copy books, particularly field guides. When I go out birding, I'll take the hard copy.

David Fair: Perhaps it's my age and generation, but e-books just simply weren't available to me as a kid. I loved going to the library and looking through everything--touching, smelling and immersing in the experience. For me, that kind of gave me tactile satisfaction that remains today. My kids, they're happy with both kinds of experiences, but my grandkids, they want to experience most everything through their iPads and laptops. Is that kind of generational trend something you're seeing as you kind of look into these issues?

Greg Keoleian: Yes, definitely. Students are doing a lot of reading with their tablets versus print or hard copy textbooks. And, even my syllabus, I put the readings in a digital format.

David Fair: You almost have to, don't you?

Greg Keoleian: Yes.

David Fair: I will say when I read for pleasure, it's always a book or magazine I can hold. When I read for work, it is almost exclusively online. Before we explore the details of it, is there a clear environmental winner when it comes to those kinds of methodologies?

Greg Keoleian: Well, both systems have impacts. As you pointed out, in terms of print books, you know, the paper production, the pulping, bleaching, drying, cutting uses a lot of water and air pollutants. But when you look at the electronic equipment, there's a lot of...it's very resource intensive in terms of energy: mineral extraction, lithium that goes into the batteries. So, both have impacts. And if you look at one book versus one e-reader, the e-reader is going to have more impact. But then it's a question of how many uses of the e-reader? How many books do you download? And there will be a break-even where the e-reader could have an advantage over the printed book.

David Fair: But that is probably somebody who reads a great deal.

Greg Keoleian: Correct.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment continues on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking environmental life cycle costs of book and e-readers. Our expert guest is Greg Keoleian. He is the director of Sustainable Systems at the U of M School of Environment and Sustainability. Let's go back to some of that book process for a moment. We know the paper is made from trees, and you mentioned all of the others, the pulping and the bleaching. Most trees used for the purpose of generating the paper for books are sustainably raised. So, as we explore the other environmental impacts, are we also considering the fossil fuels it requires to make the trees into paper and to package and ship it around the world?

Greg Keoleian: Correct. So, you're going to look at all the energy inputs, and that'll be true for both systems. And so, particularly when you look at the e-reader, one of the biggest impacts is your use of electricity for charging the book. You know, you have your initial investment in terms of producing the e-reader, but then it's going to be a question of where you're getting your electricity from, which will really influence the overall footprint.

David Fair: Books do, on occasion, end up in landfills, but far less frequently than magazines and newspapers. However, if disposed of properly, these are items that could be 100 percent recycled, right?

Greg Keoleian: Correct. And what we really want to do is extend the life of the book and share the book. And that's you know what the function of a library or your neighborhood little library where you could, you know, donate a book for someone else to use.

David Fair: There is a reason why electronic devices are banned from landfills, and that would include e-readers. What are some of the shorter and longer-term impacts of improperly disposed of electronic reading devices?

Greg Keoleian: Well, one of the challenges is to recover materials from the disposed-of electronic equipment, and there's been a lot of that equipment actually going to developing countries, and they're not well-managed. It's a very hazardous working environment, and there's a lot of exposure to harmful pollutants in that process, so we don't really have a good mechanism for recycling of electronic equipment. That is a big concern.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and our Issues of the Environment conversation with Greg Keoleian continues. Greg is director of Sustainable Systems at the U. Of M's School of Environment and Sustainability. Much of what we have touched on to this point today, Greg, has been some of your older research, and I understand that you were taking this further. What are you looking at as you move forward?

Greg Keoleian: Well, the other thing I want to really highlight here is just a general trend with digital information. For example, these data centers are very electricity intensive. Globally, they account for one percent of the global energy demand. In the United States, it's two percent. So, that is increasing. Now, obviously, there's benefits in terms of access to information in the digital world. But we also have to be mindful.

David Fair: Clearly, the more we all read, the better. As you have pointed out, as an educator, you want to inspire people to continue doing that and do so even more. As you look to the future, what do you think we're going to need to do to make all options of reading less impactful on the environment?

Greg Keoleian: So, I will say, if you're looking in a digital format, reading on an e-reader, is going to be less resource intensive than a tablet. It's about half the energy, so there's an advantage there. Also, it's backlit, so you actually don't need, you know, a lamp, or you could read in the sunlight, which is also an advantage over the tablet. But, in general, as you said, I want to encourage people to read. I'm an educator, and you shouldn't really sweat the differences in terms of these impacts. I think you should focus more on other opportunities to reduce your footprint. How you get to the library. You know, we need to transition to electric vehicles or use public transit. When you're reading a book, use an LED lamp. So, that's another thing you could do is is convert from incandescent to LEDs, reducing your footprint by upgrading appliances, insulating your attic, bundling trips when you go to the library or bookstore. So, combine it with shopping. These are opportunities you have to reduce your footprint. You know, there's other factors involved, and there's cost. There's the enjoyment, the pleasure. For example, my niece as a pediatrician, and she told me about a recent study at the University of Michigan showing that, using printed books, the parent has better engagement with their toddlers than an e-reader where they're distracted. So, we have to really look at the whole picture here. But, again, I encourage everyone to read.

David Fair: And, again, this is a very small part of the larger concept of future sustainability. So, as we explore it that way, we need to perhaps as we've done with books today, consider everything we do and its potential impact on the world we live in, right?

Greg Keoleian: Exactly. Look at the big picture and prioritize in terms of where you have opportunities to make a difference, and each action we take has an impact. But, like I said, with the books, you know, we talked about a few things you could do, but really the bigger footprints are in how we move about in our homes. Those are where the bigger opportunities are to make a difference.

David Fair: Once again, we started off on kind of a personal note, and we'll end there today. As you have considered sustainability, what are some of the things that you have done in your home and in the manner in which you do get about our community to ensure that we're trying to harm the environment in the least manner possible?

Greg Keoleian: Well, personally, I get to campus. I'm a professor at the University of Michigan, and I commute by bicycle. And I've had this bicycle for 20 years.

David Fair: Do you do that in the winter, too?

Greg Keoleian: I do. I try. And if it gets really bad, I could take the bus. But we also have one vehicle in our household, and that's a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle that my wife drives to the botanical gardens on the other side of town. And then, the basic things in the house in terms of upgrading appliances, insulation, the other big one we haven't talked about is food. And, you know, we are very plant-heavy in our protein. As you know, you know, meats have a higher footprint. So, these are all things that one could do to kind of reduce our individual footprints.

David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you for the time today and for sharing the information and your expertise.

Greg Keoleian: Well, thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Greg Keoleian. He is director of Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability, and he's been our guest on Issues of the environment. This weekly series is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD1 Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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