Are Digital Books ACTUALLY Better?

By: Franco Bonilla

If you are a fellow bibliophile, you likely hold a polarized position between paper books and their digital counterpart. It is equally probable that you lean towards the former, in all its physicality. A survey done in Toronto last year found that 73% of the sample either preferred paper-based reading or utilized it exclusively. At face value, this partiality against e-books and audiobooks may seem to be to our planet’s detriment. Paper books require copious physical resources to be poured into each copy made, while in comparison, one vessel of digital content is enough to house a near unlimited library. Yet, the production of this single vessel is far more deleterious than that of bound paper, and it is copiously more costly than its paper counterpart. It begs the question: Is going digital more sustainable?

Looking at their carbon footprint

A tangible way to measure and compare the two methods of reading is through their carbon footprints. The average physical book of 400 pages contributes approximately 8 kg of CO2 from production to disposal, while an electronic device like an e-reader releases exorbitantly more, at around 170 kg of CO2 per device. These numbers illuminate one aspect of each option’s environmental sustainability. The carbon footprint of the production of electronic devices is almost 22 times greater than that of paper books. Alternatively, 22 is the number of physical books that could have been made in place of one e-reader. In terms of one-to-one production and the environment, it seems that paper is better. But, there are more factors to be accounted for before making such a conclusion. Primarily, it is the reusability of these products. A book of paper and ink is simply not subjectable to change; once the book is read, it will stay the book that it is, only useful if the owner decides to reread the material. To read a new book, the new book must be bought, thereby adding to its initial carbon footprint. In contrast, the digital is mutable. After the completion of one book, it can become another, and then another, all while remaining in the same vessel. As it remains the same device, there is no addition to its prior carbon footprint. This suggests that the e-reader will produce less CO2 overall if more than 22 digital books are read on it. With the average individual reading 12 books a year, and the e-reader having an average life of 5 years, the e-reader will have been more cost-efficient in terms of CO2 emissions in less than two years. And so, the accurate conclusion in terms of environmental sustainability is actually that digital is the superior option for most, save for the portion of the population that reads less than 22 books in five years.

The money view

For most individuals, choosing the environmental route is not a question of caring about the planet, but rather, economic feasibility. The notion that the environmentally sustainable decision is the expensive one is a predominant deterrent in our society steeped in capitalism. While it would be erroneous to say that choosing to be environmental is always cheaper, it is equally fallacious to dismiss all green alternatives as more costly. Undoubtedly, buying an electronic device like an e-reader is a larger financial investment than that of paper books. On average, these devices retail for $150 CAD, while a book costs $30 CAD. But, as mentioned above, the e-reader is not equivalent to one book as it allows an individual to read exponentially more than that. On these devices, book prices are halved, with an e-book selling at just around $15. In addition, e-readers are not at all a required purchase to enjoy digital books. Your pre-existing devices, like a phone, tablet, or laptop, can just as well access digital texts. It is as easy as downloading an app, or in some cases, even less than that! Some resources for purchasing e-books and audiobooks are:

  • Amazon Kindle App
  • Google Play Books
  • Apple Books

Going digital is an economically feasible and, furthermore, sustainable means of book consumption. However, in purchasing books, the ability to read them may not be the sole reason to spend money. A paper book may be necessary if it is intended to be used as decoration, or when it has deeper implications for an individual. One such instance would be the religious symbolism that is present with having a bible. Real books are also more widely accepted as gifts, due to the fact that they represent a palpable and physical manifestation of one’s intentions in the act of giving. Consequently, these additional considerations would lean an individual towards buying paper books, and that is completely fine! Economic sustainability for an individual is subjective to what the best utilization of one’s money is to prevent profligate spending.

Stanley A. Milner Library in Downtown Edmonton

Social aspect of reading

If ownership is not significant to you, and you are perfectly satisfied with just borrowing from the library, the digital method may still be appealing. Digital books are simply more convenient; when you borrow or place a hold on an e-book or audiobook, if no one else wants it, you receive the book instantaneously. The time usually spent waiting for the librarian to find it then for you to pick it up is eliminated from the equation, instead replaced with the book automatically being accessible. For audiobooks specifically, they are great when multitasking as you can move around while listening to them, or even just as a pastime while on transit. In most of the public libraries in and around the city, e-books and audiobooks are readily available. Down below are some of the libraries around the city to access free digital e-books and audiobooks:

By the same token, when you are just borrowing books, why does it matter if you opt for the physical copies? If that is your preference, and you are not creating a demand for more copies to be produced, then it has negligible impact on the environment and zero on your finances. Borrowing physical books, whether that be from the library, your friends, or even your neighbours, surpasses digital books in the sense of social sustainability. The act of giving and receiving and just sharing with each other is formative of a community. It bolsters our collective resilience in a way that digital books cannot, for lack of that material tie to the object being shared. Whichever you choose, I hope that this article encourages you to make informed decisions, as awareness is the first step into making sustainable choices. Happy readings!


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