I just can’t seem to shut up about my new iPad Mini. Clearly, I am totally taken with this technology. Thanks to my tablet I’m reading more. I’m catching up on blogs and checking out magazine articles and finishing actual books. I feel like I’m a hungry person, and my diet has just ended. I’m re-immersing myself in words. It’s wonderful, particularly as someone who writes for a living.
All of this time in front of the iPad raises a question, though – how green is it, exactly? I would assume that by reading e-books rather than paper books I’m saving the trees, which seems like a good thing. But it’s not that straightforward. Manufacturing a tablet has an environmental impact. So does packing it in a box and shipping it halfway around the world. So does plugging it in and charging it each night, and eventually disposing of it at the end of its life. When you compare a book with an e-book, you’re sort of comparing apples and oranges. You need to dig a little deeper.
Apparently the lifetime carbon footprint of an iPad 2 is 105kg. Undoubtedly the lifetime footprint of my mini is less. First of all, it’s smaller and therefore uses fewer materials. Second of all, power efficiency of most electronic devices is constantly improving. The carbon footprint of the first generation iPad was 130kg, as a case in point. But, for argument’s sake, let’s go with the 105kg number.
The production of a single book generates 7.5kg of carbon dioxide. This means that, if you’re buying new books, one tablet consumes as much carbon dioxide as 14 paper books. Other estimates say that you need to read 23 new books a year before the two are equivalent. Given that I’ve finished 10 e-books already, I’m definitely on my way to justifying my tablet. However, there are two mitigating factors to consider here:
- I likely would not be reading as many paper books, so it’s not a fair comparison.
- I would likely not be buying all of my paper books new from the bookstore.
On top of that, you need to consider factors beyond the carbon footprint of your reading material. For instance, what chemicals are used to manufacture it, and what are your fingers coming into contact with when you hold it? Apple is trying to be green in this regard. Its LCD display is mercury-free, and its display glass is arsenic-free. The device doesn’t contain brominated flame retardants or PVC. But that doesn’t mean that it’s completely free of any questionable chemicals. Books aren’t either, though. The ink used in printing releases volatile organic compounds. Chemicals are used in the production of paper, as well.
We also need to remember that many tablet users, like me, don’t just read books on their devices. They surf the internet, update social media, check email, and so on. More and more, instead of sitting down at a computer, we’re using some kind of portable device. From an energy standpoint, it’s better to use a smaller device than a bigger one. If we ditch clunky desktop computers for tablets, and we keep the tablets for several years, we’re probably coming out ahead. If, instead, we just add the iPad to our growing collection of electronic devices, and ditch it as soon as the next version comes along, that’s not so great.
The long and short of it is that my iPad Mini could be very green, depending on how I use it. But to be perfectly honest, I mostly just enjoy it. I like that I’m reading more, so even if I can’t directly calculate the impact on my carbon footprint, I can see the impact on my lifestyle. And I can see that if, for instance, I start shifting more of my reading to the tablet that I already own, I can maximize the positive benefits for the environment. Call it justification, but the thought makes me happy.
Does the environmental impact of reading a book vs. reading an e-book sway your decision? And do you think that a tablet is actually the greener way to go? I’d love to hear your thoughts!