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Canceling Units

April 5, 2011

How do you compare the environmental impacts of certain processes or products? You can break it down to natural resources usage or pollution volume, but the end conclusion will always be subjective. It reminds me of struggling to solve complex physics problem while I was studying at Georgia Tech. One where you have to convert all of the measurements into the same units. I wasn’t very good at physics, so for some reason… while canceling out units… I always had a few that clashed 🙂

One popular discussion is – What’s more green: An e-book or a paper book? On one hand, an e-book spares the use of paper and cutting down of trees. However, an electronic book must obviously be viewed on an electronic device, which utilizes electricity. Most sources of electricity today (not all) come from coal power plants. In addition to using the natural resources of trees, we should also consider that processing paper and physically manufacturing the book also consumes energy (probably electricity and coal).

So we have e-book (coal) vs. paper book (trees + coal). This is only comparing natural resource usage. What about these products’ individual effects over time? Every time an e-book is viewed, it is using coal. Every time a paper book is viewed, it is not killing more trees. I think its really important to look at the entire product life cycle before assessing its “sustainability”.

A paper book goes through a period of time where it consumes natural resources and energy, but then it lives the rest of its life as a harmless artifact/tool. An e-book does not require a lot of energy to produce, since it is digital, but requires energy to continually exist.

I am still not sure where I stand. What do you think? E-books or paper books?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joyce permalink
    April 8, 2011 16:08

    I would say paper books, not only because it’s nicer to hold a book in hand than a hunk of plastic, but also, I feel like paper books have a longer tentative life span. I’ve had favorite books when I was younger that I’ve kept for over 10 years and whatever books my family don’t need are passed to libraries or other book donations. Even though E-books are very convenient, I feel like even the impact of the paper book extends beyond yourself. I can steal a book from my sister’s bookshelf or borrow one from a friend and it leads to a connection between that’s more than just a novel to read.

  2. July 21, 2011 18:51

    what i like about the concept of e-books is it does not use up energy unless the book is read. we can just imagine the many unwanted hardcopies of books that are printed every year (more than stores can sell.) and by the time it has reached the store, the trees have already been cut, and ink, and gas already used – even if no one actually reads it! with e-books, the supply matches the demand, and no energy or resources are consumed unless the e-book’s pages are being turned.

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