How Sustainable is Reading? 10 Considerations for Bookworms

Reading is wonderful. It takes you away from the daily grind and broadens your horizons. But how environmentally friendly is reading, and what can readers do to minimise their carbon footprint? Here are 10 things to consider.


Liz de Vries

3/23/2022 4 min read

Key points:
  • E-readers are not necessarily more sustainable than printed books.

  • Online shopping can be, but is not always more sustainable than buying from a brick-and-mortar bookshop.

  • Buying secondhand, sharing, and borrowing from the library and community bookshelf all lower the carbon footprint of your reading.

  • Many libraries, school libraries, nursing homes and hospitals will gratefully accept a donation of used books.

  • There are limited options available to recycle printed books and e-readers.

Reading is good for you. It takes you away from the daily grind and broadens your horizons. But how good is reading for the planet? Is it better to use an e-reader, or to buy printed books? Can bookworms minimise their carbon footprint? Here are 10 ideas for you to consider.

1. E-readers v printed books

There are some great benefits to reading on an e-reader, tablet, notebook or phone. They're much easier to carry around and can hold countless magazines, newspapers and books. Plus, they don't have a fixed font size, another pretty handy feature.

But the majority of readers love being able to hold, smell and feel a book, and turn actual pages. The fact that e-readers can't offer these physical sensations is almost always listed as their biggest downfall.

Are e-readers more sustainable than printed books? Both put pressure on the environment. An e-reader has a much larger carbon footprint than a printed book, but can of course hold many books, not just one. Physical books don't need to be recharged, but e-readers don't require lamp light in the evening. E-readers are almost certainly imported so need ships, trucks etc to get to your home, but print books are much heavier and take up more space during transport. E-readers contain minerals that may come from conflict-zones, but printed books contain ink and glue that can be toxic. There are positives and negatives for both methods of reading throughout the lifecycle. Which method ends up more sustainable depends on how you read.

While doing my research for this blog, I came across this in-depth article by CustomMade. It was originally published in 2015 so may be slightly outdated, but it shows quite clearly that in terms of sustainability the difference between e-readers and physical books is not clear-cut.

2. Buy less

Sustainability is partially about how much we consume - and we should be doing a lot less of it, buying things because we need them more than because we want them.

As with any other consumer good, buying books comes at an environmental cost and the more books you buy, the more pressure you put on the environment. To make your reading more sustainable - to reduce your carbon footprint - you could limit the number of brand new books you buy. Perhaps only buy new a copy if you know you'll enjoy a particular book for ever, while you borrow or buy your one-time reads secondhand.

3. Buy secondhand

Getting your books secondhand from book stores, school fetes, charity shops and the sale at your local library is a great option. It extends the lifecycle of the books and avoids the environmental impact brand new copies would have.

4. Get your books from a community library or bookshelf

Although many have disappeared during the pandemic, you’ve got to love the community libraries and bookshelves that were popping up everywhere in shopping centres and outside people’s homes. We really hope for their speedy return.

Use the community bookshelf to borrow a book or exchange one title for another. You never know what treasure you might find here. A lovely resource. 

5. Share with your friends

Instead of stashing them away in your home library, why not share your books with bookworm-ish friends? Some stories or non-fiction resources are just too precious to hide away. You could even discuss the books over a cuppa. A sort of mini-bookclub session.

6. Join your local library

The cheapest and most sustainable reading option of all would have to be the local library. With a catalogue containing thousands of titles, the books, e-books, magazines, and other resources in your local library can be literally shared hundreds of times. Of course libraries also offer lovely community events such as knit-ins and pre-school reading, and they have quiet study spaces and cheap or free internet access.

7. Buy online

Is buying online more sustainable than buying from a brick-and-mortar bookshop? Just like the comparison between e-readers and printed books, this is an area with more greys than black & white.

Buying online has a smaller carbon footprint than buying from a physical store because the store content (the books) doesn’t have to be transported to the store - only to be returned to the distributor if it’s not sold (which is very common apparently).

BUT, hyper-mega sales events such as Black Friday, are designed to encourage consumers to buy more than they need. Add to that the growing trends of same day delivery and free shipping for returns, and online shopping becomes far more unsustainable than buying in a high street book shop. If we want to protect our planet for future generations, we must think critically about the way we consume and kerb our bad habits.

8. Donate your unwanted books

Moving house? Tidying up your home library? If you’re getting rid of books, consider donating them to your local library, where depending on their condition they will be gladly received to stock shelves or sell in the book sale (with proceeds going to the library). You can also donate your unwanted books to a local school, second hand book store or charity shop. Or perhaps your local hospital or nursing home will take them.

9. Organise a book-swap with your friends

Organise a book swap and spend an afternoon or evening with a group of friends. Any left overs can be donated to the library, second hand store or your local hospital or nursing home.

10. Recycle

Regardless of whether it’s your e-reader or a printed book, at the end of its life, make sure you recycle it appropriately.

In principle most printed books classify as ‘mixed paper’ and can go in your kerbside recycling. However, check with your local council for details, as the spine and jacket of hard cover books are often not recyclable.

If you’re unsure of where you can recycle e-waste in your local area, check your local council’s website, or consult PlanetArk’s Recycling Near You website . You can also check with your nearest Officeworks store if they offer e-waste recycling.

Kobo has a limited recycling program for e-readers. Check it out here.

Last but not least, you can drop off or arrange collection of your e-waste (either for donation or recycling) by EcoActiv - you can find detailed information on their website.


Images via Unsplash