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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 ShipGreen.net, 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 Greenlife.com for help with the carbon calculations).