Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

Eternal eReaders versus the Printed Book

20 February 2013 by Jim

I’ve been asking myself recently, as I was reading PDF of my university course materials on an iPad Mini, whether e-reading was better for the environment than printing the courses on paper. Now obviously some things have to be printed, especially in cases where I need to switch back and forth between course, dictionary and books, because it’s still a pain in the arse, or at least not intuitive, to rapidly flick through PDF pages electronically, but most of the things I do read for school are now digital, be it on a Kindle or an iPad, and if I can I even get the books I’m supposed to buy in digital format.

It is wrong to compare an iPad to paper, but not a Kindle.

According to ‘Are eReaders Really Green?’, an iPad or iPad 2 would only be ‘greener’ than reading paper books if it was used exclusively for reading (so no web-browsing or gaming) and over the course of 5 years, which undisputedly is not the average lifetime of a tablet nowadays, considering that most people exchange their devices for newer ones after about 2 years of use. Now on one hand I do have to say that, while I often get new devices (especially Apple ones) each year, I do not just discard the last iteration. I re-sell it for good money on eBay, which is a means for me to recover some of the cost, subsidise the cost of the next device and, although it may be hard to believe this is one of the primary concerns, a means for me to make sure the device benefits someone else and has a prolonged useful lifetime. Good electronic devices should have multi-year lifetimes and survive beyond 2 years. In my experience, this is not an issue with Apple products, even though I do like to buy a new one every other year.

While it is certainly true that an iPad, as an electronic device whose production requires mining of rare earth minerals and lots of energy, is not what you’d call ‘green’ by anyone’s standards, the main issue I see with the comparison in the article mentioned above is that an iPad does not replace books, it replaces an entire array of devices, including, in my case, a laptop, a DVD player, an MP3 player and a gaming console. Surely then it is a bit unfair to compare it to printed books, who do not replace these devices at all. A more poignant comparison, in my opinion, would be the one between a Kindle and a printed book. Without making a distinction between iPads and eReaders, ‘Are e-books greener than paper books?’ argues that for any eReading device, you need to read 33 eBooks of 360 pages or more “for it to become superior from a climate perspective”. This is, for a Kindle, something definitely possible to achieve, and, if I factor in the tons of web-content I read, especially using read-it-later services such as Instapaper or Pocket, my iPad Mini will also reach that threshold, I believe.

What if a device’s lifetime were unlimited?

These figures, to me, seem encouraging, even though there remains a big problem: the consumer mindset towards technology. Why do we, me included, feel the need to buy the latest-and-greatest iPad each (or every other) year, even though the current model is in perfect working condition, and sometimes even immaculate due to the fetish of protecting our devices with display films and cases? It seems to me that the main issue is that a device reaches the end of its lifetime after a user discards it, which doesn’t have to be the case. Many goods have transitioned from immediate trashing (in landfills, for example) after use to recycling, as is the case for glass or plastic bottles, for example.

I suppose technologically speaking, there would be a, albeit more expensive, manufacturing process that would allow our devices to be wholly recycled into newer ones. Why not force manufacturers to transition towards entirely recyclable manufacturing? Imagine going to an Apple store and giving them your old iPad to get a 75% discount on the next model, which they produce by re-using the material of your old one? You’d get an upgrade, a new iPad, that’s really your old iPad with an upgrade. Wouldn’t that be cool? Why shouldn’t politics decide to impose an international standard of production where the authorisation for the production of a non-essential product is only given once it is proven that it can be entirely recycled? That would solve many issues we have with the upgrade-cycle, and it would not keep the rich (which everyone with an iPad, admittedly, is) from indulging in purchases.

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