How Much Paper Does One Tree Produce?

Ask Mr. Green

Hey Mr. Green,

How many sheets of paper does one tree produce? Our office is trying to do a simple “shock & awe” communique to our employees to make them understand the environmental impact of high paper usage.

—Leslie, in Los Angeles

It’s tough to arrive at an accurate estimate, because of variables such as the weight of different kinds of wood, the size of trees, and the type of pulping process, etc. But if you’re looking for some shock and awe less destructive than George Bush’s I suggest that you dwell on the prodigious amount of writing and copy paper that still gets used, and also is not recycled. The United States produced about 20,700,000 tons of this paper last year, which by my reckoning (see below) takes 55 to 110 million trees, but we only recycle about 11,000,000 tons, or 53 percent, according to those who should know: the American Forest and Paper Association. (Recycling is vital because about a third of new paper comes from recycled paper. Another third is from waste such as sawdust and scrap from lumber mills, according to the EPA.) So you well-groomed office workers could learn something from those guys in grubby coveralls piling cardboard on their old trucks, because they recycle about 90 percent of the country’s cardboard boxes.

Data from last year do indicate that we used a third less paper than when the “paperless” office went into high gear 20 years ago. But even this statistic might say more about the recent economic mess than anything else, because in 2007 when the economy was hot, we went through more printing paper than ever.

As to your original question, well, I accept such queries as the Lord’s righteous punishment for my own career as a reckless, feckless teenage logger. A rule of thumb is that a cord of hardwood (128 cubic feet) weighing two tons will produce 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of paper. So to arrive at the number of trees needed for a ton, I imagine one of those lost trees of my lost youth looming above in the Wisconsin winter, swaying in the whistling wind. It’s got an average 8-inch diameter trunk to a usable height of about 45 feet. Applying the simple πr2 formula to get the cross-sectional area and multiplying it by the height, we discover that this Platonic-yet-real yet-dead tree contains roughly 10 cubic feet of wood. So it would take about 8 of these trees to produce between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of paper, Since a typical 500-sheet packet of the paper weighs 5 pounds, that’s 10,000 to 20,000 sheets per tree, which doesn’t sound all that bad. That’s why the most effective way to shock your colleagues is 1) to address the volume of paper unnecessarily used in the first place, and 2) note the vast amount that gets wasted instead of recycled.

 

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Illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking.

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