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E-reader vs book: which is more eco-friendly?

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When E-readers were launched in 2007, the members of my book club were undecided.

We all love books and live in homes with shelves groaning with years of accumulated books. We enjoy browsing in bookshops and don't want them to close down.

But e-readers are winning some of us over. The price war has made them more affordable, the e-books are cheaper and it's hard to beat downloading a book in less than a minute.

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The real whammy comes when we travel. It is a lot easier to put the reading material on a slim, lightweight e-reader than carry a bag of books.

There is also a strong environmental argument for buying an e-reader, according to studies by environmental researchers. You have to be a regular reader to make it worthwhile, but if you buy books on your e-reader you are no longer cutting down trees or adding to any landfills.

The carbon footprint of an e-reader such as Amazon's Kindle is equivalent to 22.5 physical books, according to a report by Cleantech Group. It found a physical book typically has a standard carbon emission of around 7.5 kilograms compared to an average of 168 kilos for an e-reader such as the Kindle. That's the equivalent of about two e-books every month for a year to negate the carbon emissions. As long as you don't upgrade your e-reader too often, you will improve your environmental impact.

Another study, published in the New York Times, estimates that you need to read 100 books on an e-reader if you want to offset global warming.

It's not just the trees that will be saved - printed media used around 125 million trees in the US each year. It is also the fossil fuels used to transport books around the country.

Researchers have also looked at the water use for paper books and estimate book production uses eight litres of water per book compared to 299 litres for an e-reader. You come out on top if you read more than 37 books on your e-reader.

But an e-reader uses non-renewable minerals you won't find in the paper printing process such as columbite-tantalite, which comes from the world's politically unstable regions as well as relying on lithium batteries. Printer's ink does have a number of volatile organic compounds, according to the researchers. However, more books are being printed on recycled paper and printed with soy-based inks rather than petroleum-based ones.

If you read a large number of books it's hard to go past the advantages of an e-reader. The hard choice is which machine to buy. Consumer magazine Choice tested 15 e-book readers late last year and found Sony's PRS-650 (currently retailing for $299) came out on top for its ease of use and readability indoors and outdoors. Next was Apple's iPad 32 GB ($928), then the Sony PRS-350 ($229) and Amazon's Kindle 3G and Wi-Fi ($191).

You can also read on your smartphone. According to Choice, there are a number of apps (applications) that you can download for free such as Kindle for iPhone, eBooks by Kobo, ICDL books for children, Wattpad 100,000+ Books, Barnes & Noble eReader and Stanza. Of course the best way to cut your carbon footprint is to use the local library, sharing the environmental impact of a single book with your community.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

  • If you like classics, look for an e-reader with EPUB which allows the free download of thousands of classics.
  • If you want new releases, choose an e-reader with wireless purchase and instant downloading.
  • Does the e-reader have plenty of Australian books on the list?
  • How long is the battery life? Nobody wants their reading device to run out of power just as they approach the climax!
  • Is it easy to carry around? This might be a factor if you're travelling.
  • What is the lighting like? Is it easy to read outside, inside and in bed? Most often you must buy a protective cover with a light for night reading which costs extra.
  • Can you loan out the content from your e-reader? Is there a limit on how long this can be for?

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Susan has been a finance journalist for more than 30 years, beginning at the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Sydney Morning Herald. She edited a superannuation magazine, Superfunds, for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, and writes regularly on superannuation and managed funds. She's also author of the best-selling book Women and Money.
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