Digital downloads are the darlings of the eco-age.

When it comes to books or music, we're told increasingly that if we get some gizmo and cram it with songs or novels, we can continue blissfully onward through life, content that we are sparing the planet the ravages caused by the production of paper and plastic CD cases.


It's tough to forgo the luxurious heft of a hardback even for a paperback, let alone an "e-reader" like a Kindle.

And I still mourn the lost visual impact of my old record album covers. Without them, where do college students get stuff to hang on the walls?

But consider the evidence from a recent report by the Cleantech Group LL, a global company that seeks to accelerate the development of clean technologies.

Crunching data from various sources, it noted that books (and, ahem, newspapers) resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees in 2008, produced 153 billion gallons of wastewater, consumed waterfalls of fresh water and emitted ink-based toxins.

But aren't e-readers made of plastic and precious metals? Yes. But the study found that the carbon emitted in the life cycle of a Kindle is offset by the emissions it saves - compared to books - in its first year of use.

To be sure, there are so few devices in use at the moment that, collectively, they don't make much difference either way.

But the authors concluded that if the expected 31.3 million e-reader devices sold through the end of 2012 were used to their full capacity - no cheating with hardbacks, not even for Jane Austen! - they would prevent 19 days' worth of global emissions.

They're especially encouraging the use of e-readers for textbooks, which not even libraries want as leftovers these days. The authors said that six universities - including Princeton - started e-textbook pilot programs this fall.

When it comes to music downloads, allow the researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to sing their praises.

They found that digitally buying an album - yes, that's what they called it - produces 40 to 80 percent less in emissions than even the best way of purchasing it physically, which was e-tail with road delivery. (E-tail with air delivery was worse, and retail came up the loser.)

They didn't look at the carbon impact of manufacturing the digital players, but neither did they look at the impact of the CD players.

I'm very much into things being smaller and more portable. And I don't want to be left in the digital dust, which is why I recently bought a BlackBerry.

For me, it may come down to an eyeball factor. When I checked out a friend's Kindle, my aging eyes, bifocals notwithstanding, loved how he could increase the type size.

Conversely, that's exactly what I hated about the MP3 player I bought so I could download audio books, a particular passion of mine.

I loved how tiny and portable it was, but I couldn't see the display without my specs.

Perhaps what would ultimately drag me into this new world is a device like a Kindle plus audio, one where I could start listening to a book on the way home from work, pick up where I left off when I settle down to read in my armchair, then resume the audio on my morning commute.

That, for me, would be irresistible.

There may come a day when I don't have a choice, and it may be sooner rather than later, if Simon & Schuster's new initiative is any indication.

Annie Leonard, the woman who brought the world the super-popular Internet anti-consumption film rant, The Story of Stuff, is coming out with the book version. It's subtitled How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities and Our Health - and a Vision for Change. You get the gist.

Due in March, it will be available in hardback, on CD and as both an eBook and eAudio.

Publishers regularly send reviewers advance galleys in a funky style of paperback. But for this, Simon & Schuster debuted a new reviewer program - dubbed the "Galley Grab."

It offers the galleys in one version only: as a digital download from the publisher's Web site.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or To post a comment, visit her blog at