Are eBooks Better for the Environment?

Joe Biel
6 min readNov 9, 2018

In January of 2011, Microcosm Publishing offered a service where customers could exchange the Kindle that they had received for the holidays for an equitable value of our books. The campaign was a huge success and we receive calls six years later asking if we are still offering the exchange. But the most confusing aspect of the news cycle that followed was the “investigating journalism” that tracked “the real impact of e-readers vs paperbacks.” I devoured dozens of articles on this subject and each one looked solely at the carbon impact of each format, the expected life cycle of a book versus an e-reader, and a handful even examined the long-term eye damage and quality of experience while using e-readers. Mother Jones concluded that the comparison was close but that the most ethical choice was to check physical books out of the library. I would second their endorsement of the library; in every case I found myself frustrated and tossing incredulous glances at the screen. Why were these articles focusing solely on carbon? The issues that seemed the biggest to me, like conflict minerals and clean drinking water, were not even mentioned.

I had contacted a few magazines that had run articles with this question and offered my own articles to a few other publications that seemed invested in the subject. Typically, the answer was either that the resources involved to draw a comprehensive picture was either too complicated for the story or for the readers. One source told me that they thought it would be too depressing for readers to understand the global impact of their e-reader, as it would also make them feel guilty for using an iPhone or laptop with similar ethical quandaries. It took five years before I found a technology news and views outlet, TeleRead, that was willing to present my comprehensive look at this issue.

Just one feather-weight e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals, according to a New York Times op-ed. A key metal is cobalt. While cobalt comes out of mines in Russia, Australia, Zambia, and China, most of the cobalt that is used in e-readers (as well as personal computers and smartphones) comes from the “Democratic” Republic of the Congo. The Congo is one of the most intense sites of colonialism over the past 400 years, resulting in few labor standards and many layers of wealth disparity and corruption…

Joe Biel

self-made autistic publisher and filmmaker formed by punk rock,