Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Use Paper and Save Trees

I just read an article "6 Lessons One Campus Learned About E-Textbooks" by Jeff Young (AFAIK, no relation to Jeff Young), and had some thoughts about e-books to share.

First off, let's briefly go over the 6 lessons:

  1. E-book readers suck.

  2. E-book readers are hard to use.

  3. Professors wanted to be "on the bandwagon".

  4. Batteries die.

  5. Some subjects' E-books are worse than others.

  6. E-books save trees.

Now I am a techie kind of guy, and I wold love to have some sort of E-book, if they had even most of the benefits of a paper book, but sadly that is not the case. Here are my pet peeves about E-books. Since they are long, I'm going to cover one lesson/peeve per blog post.

E-books kill trees?

Yes, I know they just said in that learned article that they save trees. By "trees" I mean "The Environment", just to be clear. A search on the internet leads me to believe one tree produces 8,000-9,000 sheets of copy paper (which goes to show that I'll believe almost anything). Let's say I'm taking 5 courses and each textbook is 800 pages. Ignoring the fact that textbook pages are thinner and smaller than copy paper, I am using about 1/2 a tree per year. Of course, the average textbook will last more than a year (I have some from my college courses mumbly years ago). Assuming some the textbooks get sold back to the campus book store and resold until they fall apart, we'll be picky and say the average textbook will last 2 years. So the environmental cost of the books is 1/4 tree/year.

Now let's say I throw out those pesky textbooks and get a laptop. I say laptop because of the problems with an E-book reader (which I'll get into later). That laptop takes something like 2000 KWH of energy to produce (hard to find figures online, mine were actually based on energy cost of manufacturing a desktop computer, which I'm assuming is similar. A laptop has less plastic and steel, but also has batteries and more exotic materials, so I'm guessing the numbers are comparable). Electricity is produced at the rate of 2460 KWH/ton, so the laptop uses about 1600 pounds of carbon. A tree absorbs 13 pounds of carbon/year, so that laptop consumed the equivalent of 125 tree years, or about the equivalent of 6 "paper" trees (assuming trees grow for 20 years before being made into paper).

Of course that laptop lasts more than just one year. Again hard to find numbers, but averaging a bunch of sources the laptop can be expected to last 3 years. So we have manufacturing environment impact for the laptop of 2 trees/year. Oh yeah, the laptop also has other uses, but since we're a student, we're going to spend as much time in class, studying, reading, etc. as we are playing games/music, etc. (most of the time we're doing both), so I'll reduce that by a factor of 2 and call it 1 tree/year.

So, just by manufacturing, the books are ahead by a factor of 4. We still haven't considered the electricity used to run the laptop. Assuming it's on for 6 hours a day (class time plus homework plus study time) and uses 50 watts we have bout 200 pounds of coal or 3/4 of a tree/year in electricity to run the laptop.

Final score:

Paper BooksLaptop
Tree equivalent0.25/year1.75/year

Now, let's consider that we eventually throw out the textbook and the laptop. The textbook is almost entirely recyclable (except for the ink) at very low energy cost. The laptop is difficult to recycle, and requires lots of energy to do so. And when it gets into a landfill, the textbook is biodegradable, whereas the laptop will ast for centuries, leaching chemicals into the soil.

I agree the numbers would be closer if we were talking about a dedicated E-book reader, like the Sony or Amazon readers, but I don't think you can get below (or even meet) the tree-friendliness of real books. Stay tuned to see the next exciting blog post on this topic.


Love the mumbly years ago. You are soo right. You forgot to add in how many print the wrong pages or lose the pages they already printed out.


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