Thursday, February 21, 2008

LCAC: Kindle vs. Pulp Army

Designers, environment-wonks, anyone remotely interested in global economies or material reality, take note: IDC has left you a wonderful, free Life Cycle Analysis Calculator on the internets. This little beauty will take into account material extraction, manufacture, transport, use and disposal, and give you the damage in MJs and kg of trusty CO2.

I took this baby out for a little spin, and attempted to figure out exactly how many paperback books it might take to equal the embodied energy in an Amazon Kindle. Amazon has yet to really push the green angle, but I feel it's just a matter of time, so I got some rough numbers and had at it.

As don't own a Kindle I had to make do with some internet data and assumptions. Amazon kindly provided the dimensions and weight, and I made some rough assumptions on packaging and material makeup. Insider business posts let me in on the location of manufacture (China, natch), and transport was pretty damn easy (delivery to the door). Power consumption was a little more tricky-- I ended up giving a generous estimate to the amount of charging time and necessary wattage (30 minutes, 3 days a week @40W). I gave it a lifetime of 8 years (about the same as a well-cared for iPod), and assumed none of it would be recycled. Here's what we ended up with:
**note: I don't know why these huge spaces are occurring, so just bear with me and scroll down...***


I have more books than Kindles in my house so that calculation was a little easier. I assumed a .5 kg average paperback with 50% recycled content. Most of my books were (surprisingly) printed in the US so I went with domestic shipping. Given the results (see below) I calculated both the cost of picking up the book at a bookstore and having it shipped to my house. Books don't have plugs, so use energy was pretty simple. I assumed, that half of my books would end up in the recycling bin. Here are my numbers:

Transport (Pick Up/Delivery)51/620/3.4

Before I compare results, a little disclaimer: yes, I know I made a lot of assumptions. This LCA doesn't take into account lots of other factors like toxicity, warehousing, material origins, and the joy of turning a page. Likewise it doesn't consider the juice powering the server towers comprising the internet and my reading lamp, or the fact that the majority of books produced are not sold but end up in musty warehouses or authors' basements. But wasn't this fun anyway?

Biggest surprise: picking up a paperback all by my lonesome TRIPLES the environmental impact. Internet shopping now takes on a whole new dimension. But with the most efficient books I can muster, 30 paperbacks = 1 Kindle. Does this make it worth it? I think it would depend on the user. If you're using this thing to read magazines or newspapers that you usually get delivered weekly or daily, than it probably will save some carbon. If you read two books a year, it's probably not helping the environment any more than your 8000sf green vacation home.

I'm hoping to make this a series of posts just to show you how awesome this kind of calculation can be. But don't just take my word for it-- what in your house are you curious about? Get a screwdriver and a scale and figure out exactly what it took to get that product through your door!


Anonymous said...

What about post life impacts. Paper degrades naturally and returns to the environment. The kindle could last decades to centuries in landfills. And what about the renewable materials issue. Trees grow back, a strip mine is forever. Just saying. And what of reuse. I can give you a book I just read, can you send me a kindle version of a book you just read?

autoautistic said...

As with any life cycle analysis, there is an endless list of varibles to take into play - I am in this study assuming that the calculator takes into account those most important.

I have also been alerted by this blog post

that this study

is somehow using my results as scientific fact. Clearly if they had read the post above they would not have assumed this. For shame!

Anonymous said...

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