Paper or Plastic, why ereaders are not the right choice

I have seen in posts, comments, and letters to the editor statements that ebook readers will save trees. On a APM Marketplace segment, Kevin Pereira of cable TV’s G4 network, called the Amazon Kindle, “the savior to many, many forests in the future.”

What an Ebook Reader is

These handy electronic devices can display text and graphics in full sunlight because they use electrophoretic screens, known as electronic paper. Energy moves pixels into place on the e-paper. Once in place, images do not need the refreshing a liquid crystal display (LCD) does, giving the device very low energy needs.

What an Ebook Reader Does: Libraries in the Palm of Your Hand

Imagine a bookstore and library resting in the palm of your hand. Amazon’s e-book reader is perhaps the best known. Amazon describes its product, the Kindle, as a lightweight “wireless reading device” that allows you to “find, buy, and read” text instantly. It holds up to two hundred books, and even more when it’s equipped with a memory card.

Dead Tree Technology or 21st Century Electronics?

Should you buy an e-book reader or stick with paper-based three dimensional random-access devices—books? Paper or plastic? If you were considering buying an e-book reader in order to save trees, would you still buy one if its manufacture and reclamation caused more irreversible pollution than one thousand trees saved from logging?

I have written before about ereaders. Now here’s a parable to illustrate the consequences.


The Parable Of The Tree And The Swimming Pool

There once was a man who owned a fine house with beautiful yard and swimming pool. A stately tree shaded the swimming pool from the afternoon sun. The owner loved this tree, yet it dropped leaves into the pool that the man had to scoop out to keep the pool’s filter clean. He asked the local craftsman for help.

“Let me cut the tree down,” the craftsman said, “and use its wood to build a gazebo to shade you.”

The owner shook his head. “No. I love that tree.”

“I can plant another tree. It will grow but its leaves won’t fall into the pool because of the gazebo.”

“No,” the man said. “Do something else.”

“Very well, I’ll make the gazebo from metal and plastic.”

“That sounds wonderful. My family and I are going on a two-week vacation.”

“Your gazebo will be here when you return.”

When the man and his family returned from their vacation, there was a gleaming gazebo with posts of anodized aluminum and the roof the finest plastic. Beneath, the pool sparkled a refreshing blue. But, their landscaping was ruined: plants had been run over, ruts marred the ground, and oily pools reeked. Nearby was a large hole with a giant pile of rocks next to it.

The man found the craftsman standing near the pit. “What have you done to my yard?” he asked.

The craftsman wiped his hands on a rag. “It’s a beautiful gazebo don’t you think?”

“Well, yes, but my yard has oil puddles, ruts from heavy equipment—”

The owner’s son and daughter tugged at his shirt. “Dad, we’re going swimming in the pool. Okay?”

“Oh,” said the craftsman. “That’s not a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Cyanide.” The craftsman shrugged. “Metal is leached from rock with cyanide, then it’s put into pools for storage. You can’t let it get back into the water table, you know.”

“Father, why did you let this happen?” asked the man’s daughter.

“I had no idea this would happen.”

“Oh you knew,” said the craftsman. “If it’s not grown, it has to be mined. Substitutes to wood they leave their mark too. That’s the tradeoff.”

“But—”

“But, it just hadn’t happened in your backyard before.”


If it is not grown; it has to be mined

If you think timber harvesting is ugly, imagine an open-pit mine two miles across and three-quarters of a mile deep. Within ten years, the cutover forest area will be covered with new growth, whereas Kennecott Copper’s Bennington Mine in Utah will still be visible from outer space one hundred years from today and everything in the periodic table will be in the waste tailings.

Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, has become successful by recognizing what people want to buy. After all, Amazon.com is one of the few dotcoms to make money and survive the Internet business bubble. Since Kindle debuted, Amazon is selling more books. Bezos told attendees at BookExpo America, an annual bookseller’s tradeshow, “After purchasing Kindle, customers continue to purchase the same number of physical books that they bought before buying their Kindle, but altogether…their [Kindle plus physical] book purchases on Amazon increased by a factor of 2.6.”

What is to be done? Here are my thoughts.

A Five-Step Program

  1. Recognize: everything comes from somewhere and (when obsolete) everything goes somewhere.
    Everything we do, buy, use, and own carries consequences, not only from its use but its manufacture and disposal. If you decide to buy a digital e-book reader like Amazon’s Kindle, do it because it is a cool piece of technology, not because you are under the illusion that you are saving the environment. Bits and bytes may not fill up landfills, but out-dated consumer electronics can.
  2. Hang on to it longer.
    On average, Americans discard three cellular phones and more than one computer every second. The EPA says that a cellular phone’s life before discard is 18 months. We can save materials by increasing the average to 24 months.
  3. Buy and use products made from renewable sources.
    Use wood and other renewables whenever possible instead of plastics, metals, and other non-renewables. I know this also has consequences. Using corn and oil palm for ethanol and bio-diesel has caused problems. But consider gold, (just one of the metals needed for electronics) it generates nearly eighty tons of toxic waste for each refined ounce.
  4. Buy less packaging and/or product.
    Use products that have reduced the quantity and/or the toxicity of the material.
  5. Buy products easier to reuse.
    Some companies are making products with recycling and reusing in mind. An item’s price needs to include the cost of mining reclamation and First-World-quality recycling. Economists call the production of problems that everyone ends up dealing with due to another’s using a product, externalities. My thought (I’m no economist) is to incorporate the cost of disposal into the price of the item.

Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

To learn more about the Life Cycle Assessments of the things we buy, go to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website – http://www.epa.gov.


 

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