Are Kindles really so green?

A report released last week by the Cleantech Group, a consultancy and analysis outfit, laid out a strong environmental case for the Amazon Kindle and, by extension, all e-readers. The study underscores the stunning positive impact that e-readers could have on our environment should the technology become widely adopted and replace paper as the medium for books, magazines and newspapers.

The report found that "e-readers purchased from 2009 to 2012 could prevent 5.3 billion kg of carbon dioxide in 2012, or 9.9 billion kg during the four-year time period." In other words, treehuggers should be blowing Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos big kisses. But there's a catch, and it's a big one.
According to the Cleantech report, an Amazon Kindle must be used for a year before the carbon emissions required to make the electronic device are offset by a corresponding reduction in purchases of paper-based media products. That's important. If the e-reader market is anything like the iPod and handset market -- the closest comparable consumer electronics categories to date -- then e-readers might not be as green and carbon-busting as they first look.

Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs said that people would need to purchase a new iPod every year in order to keep up (hat tip to Engadget). In my own household, between iPods, and iPhones we've easily added a new device every year. With the Kindle, less than six months after I received my first one as a gift I already have my eye on a bigger Kindle released a few months later.

I don't have exact stats on how often users swap out devices but I'd say at a minimum the average is 24 months. This means the impact of a Kindle is probably not as profound as Cleantech Group says, given that it assumes a the four-year ownership cycle.

The Cleantech report also based its estimates on the assumption that the average Kindle user would purchase 22.4 books per year. That sure sounds like a lot. I purchase perhaps five or six and most people I know do not purchase 22 books. I am not sure how they were accounting for newspaper and magazine purchases, or if they were just rolling the averages of all paper media buys into a more easily measured equivalent number of books. If so, this could be true.

On the other hand, the early adopters are most likely to have the biggest impact because they are probably the magazine and book junkies who care enough about reading to try out a Kindle or a Sony (SNE) e-reader product. So I imagine the positive environmental impact of each additional e-reader declines beyond a certain point. To date, only one million e-readers have been sold, according to VentureBeat's Camille Ricketts. So the longer-term growth rates of e-readers are at present hard to extrapolate.

The truth is, the most environmentally friendly e-reader to have is the Kindle app on an Apple iPhone, or any other smartphone device equipped with an e-reader. Reading books on a smartphone eliminates the need for yet another piece of silicon and plastic and also helps encourage us all to do more with fewer toys.

True, e-readers use e-ink that does not require backlighting and therefore consumes less power. Also, the production of an iPhone sucks up a whole lot more carbon. Then there's the issue with the iPhone batteries, which Apple designed not to be replaced. Amazon took the other tack, making it very easy to swap out a Kindle's batteries. But how many people are going to swap out their iPhone for a Kindlephone?

One point the report made is indisputable, however. The publishing industry is a horrible thing for the environment. Last year the material needs of the book and newspaper businesses in the U.S. resulted in the removal of 125 million trees. Production processes for books and newspapers created 153 billion gallons of waste water, and paper accounts for more than 25 percent of all landfill volume. The upshot? Dead trees must go, no doubt. Whether an e-reader is the most efficient pathway for environmentally enlightened readers, however, is more difficult to say.

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