My iLiad ebook reader is sleek and beautiful. It's a pleasant object to hold, and with its useful page-turning bar, one-handed reading is simple. The matt non-backlit screen is easy on the eye, the design is elegant and unfussy, and it is simple to make notes in the text using the stylus, or to make the font larger or smaller. Perhaps my attachment to the physical form of the book was a little childish. After all, the words are the same whatever format I read them in, and surely it's the words that matter.
It's been striking to me how many book-lovers can immediately see the use of an ebook reader. I've taken my iLiad to writers' gatherings, book launches and meetings with editors. The very people I'd have expected to resist it - bookish people, who both read and write a lot - are the people who have looked at it, played with it, cooed over it and said decisively, "I need one of these." If these people take to the ebook reader with ease, the future of books may indeed be electronic.
And will this be a good thing for the environment? It's hard to judge. A report by the US book industry study group last year found that producing the average book releases more than 4kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - that's the equivalent of flying about 20 miles. Then there's the cost of warehousing and transport to consider and the waste and toxic chemicals produced by paper mils.
What about the electronic alternative? While the digital books themselves have a relatively low impact - recent figures suggest that transferring one produces around 0.1g of CO2 - there are other factors to take into account. Charging the reader and turning virtual pages all have an energy cost, as does turning on your computer and downloading a file. Even so, the balance may still favour the hi-tech alternative. A 2003 study by the University of Michigan concluded that "electricity generation for an e-reader had less of an environmental impact than paper production for the conventional book system".
The heaviest burden, though, will be in making the reader itself. If one were to buy an ebook reader, then keep it for 30 years, the impact would be small. But many electronic devices don't last that long, and with the constant advances in processing power and functionality it's unlikely that we would want to keep a single ebook reader as long as we might keep a book.
Disposal of electronic items is extremely problematic. More than 6m electronic items are thrown away in the UK every year, and the cadmium from one discarded mobile phone is enough to pollute 600,000 litres of water. Even recycling electronic equipment - or processing them into constituent parts - isn't without environmental damage. A recent study by Hong Kong Baptist University examining the environment around a Chinese village intensely involved in e-waste recycling, showed that lead levels in the area - including schools - were raised to an extent that might be dangerous. Paper books are, at least, eventually biodegradable, while ebook readers might pose a lasting environmental problem.
Read the complete article here.