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Are E-Readers Green Readers?

book and e-readerJust when I thought it was safe to love technology, now this. Recent articles show that using e-readers (like Kindles or iPads) may harm the environment more than reading paper books. Since I fancy myself as a green consumer I did some eco-bean counting (better known as calculating your environmental footprint) to see whether I’d go green or brown if I bought an e-reader.

Using findings from the New York Times (NYT) and the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR1) I compared e-readers and print books to see which would have a smaller footprint, given my reading habits. The results were murky but showed me a set of rules necessary for staying on the green side of the ledger. I’ll spare you the details (see the links) but, for my e-reader to be more green than print books, I’d have to buy 100 e-books (about four years at my rate), I could never lose my e-reader, it couldn’t break or become obsolete or get stolen. And nobody could give me a print book or I’d have to keep my e-reader longer. It’s as if each of these devices comes with a set of New Year’s resolutions, and we all know how long those last. Moreover, e-readers need to be charged regularly, in a way that a book never does, so somehow I’d have to ignore the fact that I was trading a non-polluting activity for one that pollutes. Anyway, I’d probably never see the consequences of my decision.

Unless I tried to. Seeking the true cost of electronic gadgets, the VQR (VQR2) sent reporters to remote communities in Bolivia, Congo, Chile, Kosovo, and Peru where the metals that go into e-readers are mined. The reporters artfully describe the usual stew of poverty, pollution, dislocation, and exploitation, but it’s the the photos that really deflate the abstractions. Concepts like child labor, lead poisoning, and wasteland are much more clearly rendered in images. Next time I get my hands on an e-reader I’ll pull up some of those photos just to see what it feels like to bear witness to the lives of people who make these devices. It probably won’t be as soothing or “logical” as eco-bean counting. But I’ll have a more complete picture of what an e-reader -- or any electronic device -- costs.