Reading on paper vs. screen



I was wondering if there are any numbers comparing the sustainability of reading conventional paper vs. reading on screens.

Standard LCD screens emit light while you are reading. Power consumption can be reduced with e-ink screens, but the production costs of an e-reader are certainly higher than the production costs of newspapers.

Is it at all sustainable to read, say one newspaper a day & one book a week. (On recycled paper & with soy-based ink, if you want.)

Or should one read the same amount on a computer screen instead. (Although, currently there exist nearly no nice screen for reading...)


Posted 2013-02-16T16:35:04.987

Reputation: 5 090

Doe this assumes you are going to BUY a laptop/tablet/whatever to read books? Because if we are using this Q&A we all have computers we can read on, and most people have or will buy tablets for other uses, so I believe since you have one of those, the case for books gets pretty weak. – MeloMCR – 2013-07-08T19:14:45.143

3Why not just use a library? They have books, newspapers and magazines. – lemontwist – 2013-02-16T16:36:17.510

3Yeah, that's good, if you have a library near you. I should have added "assuming you don't have a library within 50km". I buy books almost exclusively used though. – Earthliŋ – 2013-02-16T16:45:12.640



Disclaimer: I sometimes read up to three heavy books a week.

I don't know how you'd begin to compare. What assumptions do you use regarding the lifecycle of the paper? Is the paper to be read once and then discarded? Is it recycled? Is it read over and over again? So rather than answer the question I want to explain why it is unanswerable by looking at a few issues.

Consider reference books, for example, and to go one step further consider micro-print reference books (like the "Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary") which are intended to be read with a magnifying glass. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is a large two-volume set, but each page is a micro-print reproduction of four pages of the standard edition. if the book gets a significant amount of use, possibly over decades, it would be very hard to imagine a screen doing better. This is one reason I am somewhat concerned about so much academic literature going into electronic form.

Reading could range from there to colorful junk mail, resource-intensive to produce, read once and discarded by a small percentage of recipients....

I just can't imagine that there is a single answer here even if we limit it to books. Nonetheless, here are some back of the hand calculations for reading a 1/2 lb book once and recycling it.

If we start with US government figures and work back we get slightly under 1kWH per lb of paper in the recycling process. Keep in mind printing still has to be taken into account and that isn't cheap either. If we are comparing to a kindle, I couldn't find specific power figures (except that it charges at 5 w), that would mean you'd have to read for about 100 hours to make up for it.

But the catch is as always, how much use does a book get? If you read the Odyssey once every few years, you may quite easily get that 100 hours out of the book. My 10lb (or maybe heavier) Compact Edition of the OED gets way more than 10k hours of usage over its life, let me tell you.

So the argument is likely to be an argument against disposable books rather than against printed books generally.

Chris Travers

Posted 2013-02-16T16:35:04.987

Reputation: 5 716

1Interesting, thank you. Like you say, books are more difficult, because you don't know how long they will last, how many times they will be reread, etc. What about newspapers? Nobody reads old newspapers again. They just get recycled into new newspapers... But then, the recycling/printing process seems to be not quite as refined as the process necessary for books. – Earthliŋ – 2013-02-18T12:28:42.023

1I wonder if that is one reason why printed newspapers are struggling so much. – Chris Travers – 2013-02-18T14:39:20.613

You raise valid points, but in case of academic print I want to elaborate. First of, academic literature by definition is of limited audience, thus you do not get much win in the economy of scale. The articles must peer-reviewed, hence additional logistical costs prior to publication. Then it has to be bundled together with other articles in a journal, and then people would have to acquire the journal to get to one article, much like people buy albums to get one particular pop single. – theUg – 2013-02-19T03:31:48.470

The journal has to be distributed to subscribers and libraries. If one person checks out one copy of the journal, then this article, as well as all the other articles in that journal, become unavailable to others, who are losing in productivity waiting on you. Yourself, you are limited by the time allowed for check out, and if you have to come back to any which work, you have to go (read: drive) back to the library, provided it was not checked out by someone else. – theUg – 2013-02-19T03:35:32.893

Whereas digital publication allows for virtually unlimited distribution of knowledge amongst all interested parties, without costs of printing, shipping, and storage. This knowledge can be accessed at any time, and re-used any time. Granted, myself I prefer paper to screen any day, especially for leisurely reading, but for research, the ease of digital is certainly appealing. And, on related matter, I do not spend on overpriced textbooks, either (How much exactly did classical mechanics changed in the past couple years?). I reuse, by buying used, employ library reserve, or “borrow” digitally. – theUg – 2013-02-19T03:42:27.710

@theUg, there is a huge difference in this regard though between a journal and a monograph. Typically research students looking for journal articles are only going to pull one or two articles from a journal. Monographs are more likely to be read straight through. To the extent that monographs end up being replaced by electronic journals, I don't think this is a good thing either from a sustainability or a knowledge transmission perspective. – Chris Travers – 2013-02-19T08:02:14.363


It's very hard to come up with numbers since books can be reused, borrowed, traded and have a life of decades.

Nevertheless, regarding bestsellers and novels in general, they are mostly sold as new, and a lot of paper needs to be used. In the ebook form, it's just a matter of copying a file and has practically no impact on the environment.

You can consider that building electronic devices is not as sustainable as producing books, because of the use of rare materials and polluting processes. However, e-readers are very simple devices, and their construction process (I saw a video showing the inside of the Kindle) is much simple than, for instance, smartphones. Also, the energy needed to read a book is about 5W * 2 hours / 1000 pages (about how lasts one recharge) = 0.01 Wh/page, which is much less than the power needed for printing it on paper.

So I think that buying an ebook (not a reader, the actual book) is pretty much like buying an used book in terms of impact. The real difference (in my opinion) can be made in the market of new books, without considering the costs (and impact) of distribution.


Posted 2013-02-16T16:35:04.987

Reputation: 121


Sorry, if the answer is a bit off-topic but I couldn't help myself …

But are we talking about theoretical things or what could be done but isn't necessarily done (whatever the reasons are)?

If it is on a personal scale, again it'll depends if you want to be theoretical or rational because if we speak about screens (and other devices) for instance, there is sometimes (too much time) some planned obsolescence (material or psychological) or things are made-up with less-ecological components or are made in less ecological ways simply because it's more profitable that way (and buying more expensive doesn't necessarily mean that they were more ecologically cautious, I'd say that then consequences can be worse). So it might not be the good fight, we should see further (Either looking for the root of the problems or not being miss-leaded by not-the-real-and-more-important-problems (in general))

Plus, I don't think we can really compare paper to screen that easily, they don't have quite the same features (both have their pro and cons) so that we aren't exactly comparing things that can be compared. (Not only on the ecological-level, which can then sometimes influences the ecological-level back)

So, it's a tough question in my opinion. So may points to consider …

But I guess it's still a really good question to ask to ourselves.


Posted 2013-02-16T16:35:04.987

Reputation: 224

but then what about dedicated e-book-readers vs reading a book on your laptop? These things get really complex and it isn't clear what sort of assumptions to use in comparing. – Chris Travers – 2013-02-19T03:51:42.657

1Chris - the comparison between ebooks and laptops is actually a much easier one. Modern ebooks only use power when changing pages (eInk pixels remain as on or off until you change them) so their efficiency is dramatically greater. Charging is at 5 or 6 watts, as opposed to 60-100 watts, battery life can be a month or so as opposed to 4-6 hours. – Rory Alsop – 2013-02-19T10:38:09.873

"we aren't exactly comparing things that can be compared": We can read the same newspaper or book on two different media. My question isn't "what is the difference between paper and a screen?". I'm asking, when I have a choice to read a particular book on a screen or on paper, how sustainable are my choices? I could even print the book onto recycled paper and then turn off the computer. Is that a better choice? I don't know, but I think in principle the question is answerable, if only partly at the moment. – Earthliŋ – 2013-02-19T11:02:40.597