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Kindle karma, part duex: It’s not easy being green

September 2, 2009

kermitLast week’s news touting the Kindle in particular and e-readers in general as a boon to the environment made me think of how they used to say personal computers would bring about the “paperless office.” Yeah, right. That didn’t happen, either.

To recap: An outfit called Cleantech announced the results of something called “a lifecycle analysis,” concluding that “e-readers purchased from 2009 to 2012 could prevent 5.3 billion kg of carbon dioxide in 2012, or 9.9 billion kg during the four-year time period,” according to Court Merrigan at teleread.org.

Adds The New York Times, quoting a statement from Cleantech, “The new study finds that e-readers could have a major impact on improving the sustainability and environmental impact on the publishing industry, one of the world’s most polluting sectors.”

As often happens, this is an under-reported story, giving rise to all kinds of ill-verified claims. “On average,” for example, “the carbon emitted” by the manufacture and operation of an e-reader is offset after the first year.

That’s one. Another: “Each following year of use could actually be preventing the release of 370 pounds of carbon dioxide per user (assuming individuals buy about 22.5 books a year),” according to Green Beat.

And somewhere I read — can’t find the link now — that each reader who accesses not only books but also newspapers and magazines via Kindle will save, each year, an entire tree. Somehow that adds up to 125 million trees per annum.

H0-kay. Noting that much of the reporting and commentary on this has the distinct smell of a clever PR campaign (here’s an especially naked example), let me ask: Who paid Cleantech to do this study? I cannot find the answer to that question.

Next, what about the exotic chemicals and metals that go into portable electronic devices? A) They come from troubled and environmentally fragile places like the Congo. B) What impact do they have on air and water quality when they’re decaying in landfills?

Or, as Green Printer Blog suggests, might they simply “end up in China’s most impoverished communities in toxic, e-waste dumps and rivers”?

Valerie Motis, a Sony spokesperson, told The New York Times her company’s e-reader products are “free of toxic materials, including polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.” Amazon, by contrast, did not respond to emails and phone calls from the Times about what materials go into the Kindle.

Then there’s the matter of the number of books — almost 23 — each Kindle customer must read each year to reach Cleantech’s happy-happy numbers. That seems ridiculously high in a country where the average adult doesn’t read a book a year. Cleantech’s numbers also seem to assume traditional publishers will cut back on printed books in proportion to the growth of e-reader popularity — also unlikely.

Indeed, as Sarah Rotman Epps, a media analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., told the Times, “Right now, e-books are having effectively no positive impact on the environment.” How could they? First-quarter e-book sales for this year accounted for only 1.6 percent ($133 million) of the $24.3 billion publishing industry

Finally, if Kindle and other e-readers so far make up only a fraction of the book market, then most of the people buying them are the kind of people who like gadgets. And gadgety people like new and improved gadgets. Does anyone really think Kindle users will hold on to an e-reader device for four years, while several generations of improved versions are rolled out?

Look, I’m all for saving trees, and I’ll concede that publishing is a dirty business, but from where I stand the Kindle and other e-readers present a false solution. If you want to lay down $299 for the 8-by-5.3″ screen, or $489 for the 10.4-by-7.2″ screen, by all means, be my guest. It’s your money.

Just don’t justify that purchase by telling yourself it’s good for the planet. Meanwhile, the paper book I’m reading now (Homer and Langley, E.L. Doctorow’s new novel) will sit on my shelf for decades, emitting no fumes, using no electricity, readily available for re-reading, consultation, or lending to friends.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 2, 2009 10:41 am

    The only issue on which I disagree with you is the part about the “distinct smell of a clever PR campaign.” Nothing “clever” about it. All too obvious.

    I care about conserving the planet as much, probably more, than the next person. But when the advertising executives use it as a selling point, red flags appear everywhere.

    Thanks for opening the eyes of those who may otherwise have been too easily led…

  2. Thomas permalink
    September 2, 2009 10:56 am

    So you mean to tell me the Kindle is not setting the reading and publishing world on fire? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You are right though Chauncey, in a year it’ll be “Kindlony what?” and all the techies will have the new whoosits and whatsits to make them feel warm. Sadly, not a tree will have been saved. I am reminded of a study “Top Gear” the British automotive television programme funded to suss out the real story behind the holy grail of eco-friendly cars, the Prius. Their findings showed that the ecological footprint of a Prius is much larger than that of an average run-of-the-mill SUV (they used a Land Rover in their demonstration, I believe. Can’t find my link either) Hopefully, greater minds than mine are working feverishly as I type to come up with a solution to the wasteful and ineffecient ring of fire that is the publishing world.
    Love the picture of Kermie. Maybe one day we will all be as green as him.

  3. September 2, 2009 11:09 am

    The company clear what ever, should hold there breath for half of the days. Way less CO2. As far as your book Chauncey sitting on the shelf harm less, no way. It would emit tremendous fumes when the government forces us to burn it at a book burning. The kindle would just have to be unplugged.

  4. September 6, 2009 10:04 pm

    Chauncey,

    Thanks for the interesting and enlightening post!

    I was also among those who thought this is the life cycle analysis we were waiting for a long time, and I decided to read it and see if this is really it and if the debate is over. My conclusion from reading the report – it’s not over yet.

    Like you, I found in the report 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.

    You’re welcome to check out my analysis of the report on our blog – http://ecolibris.blogspot.com/2009/09/new-report-finds-kindle-greener-than.html

    Best,
    Raz @ Eco-Libris

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