Printed Scholarly Books and E-book Reading Devices: A Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Two Book Options

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This paper presents the findings of a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of two different book options - electronic and print. The purpose of this study is two-fold: (1) to investigate the life cycle environmental aspects of e-publishing of scholarly books and e-book reading devices (i.e. ereaders); and (2) to apply the life cycle models to a variety of scholarly e-book applications and compare LCA results for traditional print based counterparts. This study compared the life-cycle burdens and impacts of a college student reading 40 scholarly books and the equivalent amount of digitized information (53.6-MB) using a dedicated e-book reading device. Total primary energy, material and water requirements, air and water pollutant emissions, and solid wastes for each system were evaluated. By comparing these two book options, this study provides industry, consumers, and policy makers with valuable information necessary to make environmentally informed decisions regarding e-book technologies.

E-reader critics have rightfully argued that e-readers are not conducive to long sessions of reading text from a screen, lack the tactile appeal and "atmosphere" of conventional books, and are inconvenient in the sense that they represent yet another device that the user must purchase and learn to use. However, from an environmental standpoint, it is difficult to argue against the integration of e-readers into a school's curriculum, especially if the original user chooses to retain rather than resell the book or if the utility of owning the book expires (i.e. the book is discarded). The most notable observations gleaned from this study are as follows:

-Environmental burdens associated with electronic book storage (i.e. server storage) are small when compared to the physical storage of books (i.e. bookstore).

-E-readers eliminate personal transportation-related burdens since they allow for instantaccessibility to digitized texts (i.e. anywhere there is Internet access).

-E-readers are more compact and are less material intensive than the equivalent number of printed books.

-Although the most significant contributor to the e-reader's LCA results, electricity generation for e-reader use had less of an environmental impact than did paper production for the conventional book system.

The intention of this study is not discourage the use of the printed book. Rather, this paper provides industry, consumers, and policy makers with a better understanding of the potential environmental impacts associated with traditional and electronic book systems. Further, this study also provides another case study examining the relationship between information technology and the environment that can contribute to product design improvements and the development of more sustainable technologies.

Publication Type: 
Master's Thesis
Full Citation: 
Kozak, Greg. 2003. Printed Scholarly Books and E-book Reading Devices: A Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Two Book Options. Master's Thesis, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: 1-238.
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