As a forester, I’d wondered about the claims that ebook readers such as the Amazon Kindle or the Sony PRS-700 would save trees and therefore, be better for our environment than a physical book made from like…trees.
I concluded that the question, “Do ereaders save trees?” is not the right question to ask.
You can get really caught up in research. I’ve been to the Environmental Protection Agency‘s (EPA) and the Minerals’ Institute, learned about hard rock mining, heap leaching, soy based inks, pulp mills, statistics on our disposal habits. I’ve talked with experts in waste management and mining and read their reports. I’ve followed threads on the recycling of e-waste such as news reports such as The Electronic Wasteland, a story by CBS Sixty Minutes:
Then, I read about our problem with plastic. Plastic hangs around, perhaps for eons. Eventually, something will come along that can feed on PET and PVC but that’s a long way off. Here’s a sobering TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk by Charles Moore on Sailing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 270,000 square miles and 100,000,000 tons of plastic floating on the ocean.
My back-of-the-envelope calculation (based on things like the Ecological Rucksack developed by the Danish Friends of the Earth, another estimate from Earthworks, this PBS Frontline report The Toxic Shimmer of Gold, and Robert Moran Ph.D.’s paper on the Chemistry, Toxicity and Analysis of Mining-Related Waters), and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition Toxics in Electronics that leads me to believe that each Kindle, mobile phone, etc., leave about 100-200 pounds of toxic garbage in its wake. Our carbon footprint is more than CO2, it includes CN (cyanide).
A side note, according to the EPA the metal’s mining industry used 1.5 million pounds of cyanide compounds in 2006. A human’s lethal dose is a teaspoonful of 2% cyanide solution.
It’s these externalities that convinced that we have a cure that is worse than the disease. To his credit, Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos doesn’t claim the Kindle will save any trees. Even if it did save trees, the pollution from the mining, manufacturing, and the disposal of the ewaste and plastic that makes technology something that will make me consider the (total) cost to the benefit. An E-book reader, or just technology in general, is responsible for more pollution than logging of the trees some proponents think it can save. You can look it up.