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Why the Book Publishing Industry Hates the iPad

The iPad may be a game-changing device in a number of ways, but perhaps in no game will it have a bigger impact than in book publishing.

Though a debate rages about the ease and enjoyment of reading on an LCD screen versus the e-Ink used by Amazon's Kindle and other e-readers, the multi-purpose nature and glamourous design of the iPad -- as well as the ability to read books on it -- make it a potentially deadly weapon for the book-publishing and -selling industries.

So it's perhaps not a surprise that Raz Godelnik, the president and co-founder of Eco-Libris, has come out with an anti-e-book op-ed in the monthly journal of the Independent Book Publishers Association.

Godelnik's argument is that there is a whole world of information missing about the environmental impacts of e-books compared to printed books:

Materials. Consumer electronics are notorious for containing a variety of toxic materials. Some companies are more transparent than others and make it relatively clear that their e-reader devices are free of toxic materials like PVC (Sony and Apple) and BFRs and mercury (Apple). But as Casey Harrell, an international campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, which monitors the environmental impact of consumer electronics, told the New York Times, e-readers remain something of an unknown variable. [...]


Recycling. Electronic waste is becoming a growing environmental problem, and even though companies like Apple and Amazon have recycling programs in place, there's a good chance e-readers will contribute to the electronic waste stream.

According to the EPA, Americans generated about 3 million tons of electronic waste in 2007. Out of all that waste, only 13.6 percent was recycled. The rest ended up in landfills or incinerators, even though, as the Electronic TakeBack Coalition explains, the hazardous chemicals in them can leach out of landfills into groundwater and streams. [...]

When it comes to physical books we have all the information we need, but the situation with e-readers is getting more complicated, as most of the required information is not available. If you try to find out about the environmental impacts of Amazon's Kindle or B&N's Nook, good luck with that. Except for Apple, none of the companies that sell e-readers makes environmental data available.

When Joe Hutsko of the New York Times tried to learn more about the Kindle, he reported, "Phone calls and e-mail messages to Amazon inquiring about the materials in the popular Kindle device have thus far gone unanswered."

Second, even as e-readers are becoming more energy-efficient (for example, Amazon's Kindle and B&N's Nook use E Ink technology, which is significantly more power-efficient than an LCD screen), this is not the full story. E-readers are also part of a wave of mobile devices that increasingly depend on the Internet and data centers to deliver hosted services and digital content, and hence will contribute to a rapid growth in energy consumption and carbon emissions associated with so-called cloud computing over the coming years.

Although I've highlighted a couple of cases of iPads being used for environmental goods -- in investment banking and at a Georgia TV station -- Godelnik's arguments resonate with what we've been saying about the iPad since its launch: Even though it's a green device, the iPad isn't a planet-saver.

The CEO of electronics recycling firm ERI made my case for me in May, when he cheered the iPad's promise for growing his business, and the story remains true: People are replacing -- whether recycling or just disposing -- not-so-old gadgets with the multipurpose iPad, and the sheer amount of toxic waste and unsustainably sourced materials puts the gadget deep in the brown part of the green products spectrum.

Although Godelnik expresses some optimism that e-book readers will get greener in the future, he rightly points to this op-chart from the New York Times highlighting the lifecycle impacts of books vs. e-books.

Which of course is not to say that the book publishing has no eco-footprint -- far from it. The op-chart cited above includes these details:

If you order a book online and have it shipped 500 miles by air, that creates roughly the same pollution and waste as making the book in the first place. Driving five miles to the bookstore and back causes about 10 times the pollution and resource depletion as producing it. You'd need to drive to a store 300 miles away to create the equivalent in toxic impacts on health of making one e-reader -- but you might do that and more if you drive to the mall every time you buy a new book.

And Godelnik himself admits as much when he writes, "We also have to remember that physical books can improve their ecological footprint, and they are slowly doing that. We see increasing use of recycled and FSC-certified paper, as well as greater adoption of sustainable practices in the industry. Although there’s still much to be done, progress in the last couple of years has been impressive."

E-readers, and the iPad, are certainly not going away, but asking these types of questions about the true impacts of electronics can only help speed the industry down the path of greater energy efficiency, less-toxic manufacturing, greater recyclability, and more reponsible sourcing.

iPad photo CC-licensed by blakespot.

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