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The Real Cost of E-Ink

An article in the New York Times earlier this week described an effort by the legendary print magazine Esquire to make "a nod to the digital age" by using something called E Ink on its cover. That’s pretty much what it sounds like: electronic ink, so the cover can blink like a Times Square billboard, as opposed to a staid old highway billboard.
One problem: Did anyone stop to consider the environmental implications? Check out this description of the process, from the Times article:

The batteries and the display case are manufactured and put together in China. They are shipped to Texas and on to Mexico, where the device is inserted by  hand into each magazine. The issues will then be shipped via trucks, which will be refrigerated to preserve the batteries, to the magazine’s distributor in Glazer, Ky.

Editor David Granger described it as "a 21st-century technology" combined with "a 19th-century manufacturing process." Can’t argue with the second part, at least. The article goes on to note that this process is expensive, and hence requires sponsorship from a Ford SUV (not exactly a 21st-century technology itself). But what about the other cost… the carbon one? Some back-of-the-envelope calculations show it’s not small, and Ford’s not picking up the tab.

Let’s start at the beginning. According to the article, "The batteries and the display case are manufactured and put together in China." The manufacturing phase is the biggest question mark in the life cycle of any product. According to life cycle analysis by Nokia, the manufacturing phase, alone, of another battery-powered electronic device, their 3G phones, is responsible for 12.3 KG of CO2 equivalent per unit. Granted, the E Ink display is a lot simpler and uses much less material than a cell phone, so let’s say the carbon footprint is one-tenth as much—1.2 KG per user. That would be 135 tons of CO2 for the entire run of 100,000 devices.
Next, the devices will be shipped to Texas. According to E-Ink, a comparable prototype device weighs about 150 grams (5.3 ounces). According to the calculator on, shipping 100,000 of those overseas from Shanghai to Houston is worth another 2.6 tons –189 tons if they for some reason chose air freight.

From there, the little magic doohickeys will make their way to a Mexican maquiladora (where the work conditions are certain to be just lovely—ditto the Chinese factory) to be inserted by hand into the magazine covers (1.28 tons from Houston to Monterrey, Mexico), and from there, the completed issues, about one-third heavier than normal, will travel about 1,400 miles to the magazine’s distribution center in Kentucky (11 more tons). Oh, and because of the delicacy of the electronics, they’ll have to travel in refrigerated trucks. Certain kinds of refrigeration units can consume a half gallon of fuel per operating hour – that’s an additional 10 gallons for that 20 hour trip—per truck.  So for 5 trucks (let’s say), the refrigeration adds about another half a ton. Then the blinking magazines go to their final destinations.

So… the total outlay in greenhouse gas emissions for this little experiment—again, this is based on loose estimates—comes to 150 tons of CO2 equivalent, similar to the output of 15 Hummers or 20 average Americans for an entire year, and a 16% increase over the carbon footprint of a typical print publication (based on calculations by Discover Magazine, Time, and In Style). The potential environmental impact of the E Ink covers increases even more when you consider that the units are designed to be disposable after one use and they’ll make it more difficult or impossible to recycle the paper portion of the magazines.

Maybe Esquire should go back to the drawing board for a truly forward-looking concept of the possibilities of print. Fast Company would be glad to advise them on where to go to get printed on 100% recycled paper.

(Thanks to for help with the carbon calculations). 

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  • Mark Tarrabain

    This article offers an interesting perspective, however if the increase is only 16% over print publications, it seems to me that it would be very much worthwhile to do.

    Here's why.

    With in-print publications, you keep having to print. Every day, week, or month, depending on the type of publication, you have to produce x-million more magazines or newspapers for everybody to read each for each and every issue. With a device, you only have to ship the device a _single_ time... and after that, all additional isssues can be transmitted to the device electronically, using ZERO additional material resources. If the CO2 overhead of manufacturing such devices is only 16% more than an in-print publication, as this article suggests, it would seem to me therefore that even the extra hidden costs associated with the technology would have completely paid for themselves within 2 issues of the publication.

  • Ethan Goller


    My company, Structural Graphics, is the production arm for the Esquire E-Ink cover you profile in your article "The Real Cost of E-Ink." We own and operate the Mexican maquiladora where the "magic little doohickeys," as you refer to them, are inserted by hand into the magazine covers. Please be advised that the sarcasm with which you describe the working conditions in our facility as being "just lovely" is inaccurate and unfortunate.

    The facility you refer to have been scrutinized and evaluated time and time again in audits by dozens of Fortune 500 companies. And in each instance this and our other manufacturing facilities have passed those audits by adhering to-the-letter and in most cases exceeding the requirements for safety, security, working environment & conditions, and hiring and labor laws, requirements and regulations. Bear in mind these are U.S. companies auditing in accordance not only to U.S. standards, but in addition also the often more stringent Mexican standards and laws. The working conditions and employee benefits of our facilities typically exceed those of many U.S. facilities in that they are clean, safe, comfortable and air conditioned.

    While I realize the manufacturing facilities are not the focus of your article and that your sarcastic snipe is only there to serve your agenda, you do a disservice to the employees who work in those facilities by inferring they are exploited unfortunates. In fact they are loyal, dedicated workers who take pride in their jobs, in their performance, in the quality of their work, and in their company. It is unfortunate for your readers that you chose to perpetuate a stereotype for humors sake.

    Ethan Goller
    Structural Graphics, LLC