Should a digital nomad stick to paper books ? An environmental question

e-book or paper book

It’s 30 degres Celsius. You are sipping your favourite cocktail while lightly swinging back and forth in a hammock that’s hung up next to a beautiful beach. Finally some “me-time” ! You reach out to grab that awesome novel you’ve been reading for the past week : is it a) a paper book; b) an e-book reader ?

When traveling, an e-book reader is WAY more practical than a paper book : you can literally carry thousands of books with you and it will take up no space in your luggage. On the other hand, reading paper books has a nice feeling to it : the “new book” odor, the feel of the pages when you turn them, the feeling of actually holding the book in your hands… Besides, you can find second-hand books pretty much anywhere and many hostels or hotels have free libraries. Both options have both advantages and disadvantages and it’s probably up to personal preference, way of travel and the willingness of carrying worn-out copies of “The DaVinci Code” throughout Asia.

However, at DNA, we are not only avid readers and digital nomads : we are also fierce ecologists who constantly try to diminish our carbon footprint. So, after finishing the latest Stephen King novel, we decided to do a little research on the ecological footprint of e-book readers vs. good old paper books.

Spoiler !

The environmental answer to the ebook vs. paper book fight is actually a little more nuanced than “burn all your paper books immediately”. If you buy a new book, as in “it is being published for the first time”, you should definitely go for the ebook-version. However, if the book you want to read has already been published before, you are (environmentally) better off buying that book second-hand.

I’ll break it down for you : a study by the Cleantech Group showed that reading an average of 3 books a month for 4 years, taking into account the books being shipped to the readers, produces about 1 000 kg of CO2 emissions. Reading these same books on an ebook-reader would only produce 168 kg (about 10 times less!). At this pace of lecture, the environmental impact of the manufacturing of your ebook reader is set off after 12 months.

But, of course, things are never that easy and the numbers don’t add up the same way if that book has ALREADY been published before and is just sitting in some old second-hand bookshop, waiting for a new reader.

So, how can I keep enjoying my books in the most ecological way ?

  • If you are into classic novels, you should look around your current neighbourhood for a second-hand book shop. You can also try to get or exchange books from specialized websites but make sure you exchange the books in person or minimize the environmental impact of books being sent to you from the other end of the world.
  • If you prefer reading contemporary authors and are looking forward to the new Harry Potter book, you should invest in an ebook-reader. But once again, be careful with that ebook-reader because it DOES have an environmental impact when being manufactured: the longer/the more you use it, the better its environmental debt.
  • If you really can’t resist paper books and still want to read that new Harry Potter book, order it online: bookshops generally have too many books in stock and can’t sell them all. They are forced to send these back to the publishers, thus doubling their environmental footprint… a problem huge online bookshops don’t have!

But we’ll let you in on a little secret : as much as we appreciate how practical an e-book reader can be, nothing really compares to the feeling of buying a new book you’ve been wanting to read for a while… and don’t even get us started on the feeling of opening it when it’s still crisp ! What about you ? Do you stick with paper books or did you go full tech and buy an e-book reader ? What have been your travel experiences with both formats ?


4 thoughts on “Should a digital nomad stick to paper books ? An environmental question

  1. Hi,

    Very interesting post, for me everything comes down to when I want to read it. If I’m going on a trip and the weight matters, I take an ebook, but at home I will try to use a paper book but unfortunately not second hand :(.
    The only thing that I would choose the ebook readers is: I prefer to read in English and most of the books that interest me aren’t available in a book format in English or very hard to find (I live in Spain now and my Spanish is still not good enough to read the books I like), so I am a bit forced to use e-books.

    1. Hi Gabor, thanks for your reply ! True, the weight and the practicality really matters when it comes to choosing between books and an e-book. Have you tried looking at second-hand bookstores ? They sometimes have English literature alleys… the downside is that they generally have “older” books, though !

      1. My problem is that they are books about business, marketing, programming with specific authors that’s almost impossible to find or my car would generate much more carbon footprint to find than to order it as an e-books and many times the other issue is time that you have to spend searching…
        One thing what I was thinking since I read this post is: how much is a carbon footprint to make an e-book reader. Most people read on average 4 books a year according a survey (I don’t know how accurate the survey is because it was conducted with 2000 people) and the majority of these change e-book readers every 3-4 years on average. How would this move the scale towards paper books?

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