A life cycle assessment of e-books and printed books in South Africa

Vinesh Naicker, Brett Cohen


This paper presents the results of a study comparing the life cycle environmental impacts and cumulative energy demands of reading printed books (print system) with those of reading e-books from an Apple Air iPad (digital system), with a specific focus on production of books and use of both options in South Africa. The two systems were compared using the ReCiPe midpoint and cumulative energy demand methods. The findings, which are consistent with international findings, demonstrate that the print system has lower impacts than the digital system in the impact categories of freshwater eutrophication, freshwater ecotoxicity, marine ecotoxicity and metal depletion, whilst the digital system has lower impacts in the categories of climate change, ozone depletion, terrestrial acidification, marine eutrophication, human toxicity, photochemical oxidant formation, particulate matter formation, terrestrial ecotoxicity, ionising radiation, agricultural land occupation, urban land occupation, natural land transformation, water depletion and fossil depletion. The major processes contributing to energy demand and environmental impacts of the print system were paper production and printing. For the digital system the major contributing processes were the production of the iPad and e-book reading. Coal-based electricity and coal-miningrelated activities featured prominently in both systems, affecting environmental impacts and energy demand of products and services in South Africa. A change in the electricity mix to be less coal-intensive reduced the impacts of both systems. Finally, the products demonstrate that relatively few additional readers result in printed books becoming preferable to e-books in almost all impact categories, suggesting the need to consider housing print books in libraries to reduce their relative environmental impacts.


cumulative energy demand; digital books; print books; life cycle assessment

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2413-3051/2016/v27i2a1343


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