Brian Palmer (aka Slate’s Green Lantern) writes that “iPads and Kindles are better for the environment than books.”
If the Lantern has taught you anything, it’s that most consumer products make their biggest scar on the Earth during manufacture and transport, before they ever get into your greedy little hands.
He then papers glosses over an important part of the manufacture of electronics. Mining. So I commented:
Paper versus plastic
“E-readers also have books beat on toxic chemicals.” I’m not so sure of this. As noted, “E-readers do, however, require the mining of nonrenewable minerals…”
Industrial extraction of such non-renewable minerals primarily uses cyanide compounds to separate metals from the raw ore. And, though U.S. mines pollute less than others around the world, hard-rock mining produces more toxic waste than any other industry in the country, according to the EPA. For example, one ounce of refined gold (used in electronics manufacturing) generates nearly 80 TONS of toxic waste. The leftovers are akin to nuclear waste for the mining industry: around for a long time, hazardous, and no one really knows what to do with it. The waste contains “every element in the periodic table,” says Robert Moran, PhD., an expert in geochemistry. Moran’s company, Michael-Moran Associates, has commented extensively on the environmental impacts of mining projects around the world for both the mining industry and for environmental activists.
If you think clearcuts are ugly, try open-pit mines, 2,000 feet deep, and one to two miles across.“These are not your grandfather’s mines,” he says. Mines are “constructed on a huge scale unheard of less than thirty years ago.”
Bottom line: Forests return after harvesting. Plastics and cyanide dumps don’t go away. Instead of saving trees for our descendants, we’re leaving tons of toxic wastes and despoiled landscapes where trees may not grow for millennia.
For more on ereaders and dead-tree books see: