A By-the-Numbers Look at Paper Recycling: Does One Person’s Effort Do Any Good?

Logging TruckHow much good comes from one person’s hypervigilant paper recycling effort?

I’ve been asking myself variations of this question lately, mainly while at my day job as I see basically all colleagues around me tossing paper into the trash, rather than the recycle bin.

I know it’s tough to look in the mirror and think that you, just one individual on a planet of billions, can do much that makes a difference. So I’ve been pondering what the value is — or is not — to my vigilance in recycling.

Can I make a difference? Is my effort worth anything to the planet, especially in the face of so many non-believers who assume apathy is the only medicine?

I’ve looked for the numbers to apply some math-based logic to these questions.

To know how much good one person can do by recycling paper, I figure it’s good to quantify how many pieces of paper add up to a tree. Easy question, not-so-easy answer.

According to Conservatree Paper Company, a San-Francisco-based company that went from being a paper distributor (1976-1997) to being a nonprofit focused on transitioning the paper industry to using environmental papers, there are too many variables for a simple answer to that question.

Things to Consider About Paper and Trees

What kind of paper: What’s it used for? Newspapers and telephone directories, or office letterhead and advertising? The “groundwood” paper that is used for newspapers is considered about twice as efficient as “freesheet” papers used for office needs.

And is the paper coated or uncoated?

Taking these variables into account, Conservatree lays out some calculations. For an amount of X type of paper, Y number of trees are used:

  • 1 ton of uncoated virgin (non-recycled) printing and office paper uses 24 trees
  • 1 ton of 100% virgin (non-recycled) newsprint uses 12 trees
  • A “pallet” of copier paper (20-lb. sheet weight, or 20#) contains 40 cartons and weighs 1 ton. Therefore,
  • 1 carton (10 reams) of 100% virgin copier paper uses .6 trees
  • 1 tree makes 16.67 reams of copy paper or 8,333.3 sheets
  • 1 ream (500 sheets) uses 6% of a tree (and those add up quickly!)
  • 1 ton of coated, higher-end virgin magazine paper (used for magazines like National Geographic and many others) uses a little more than 15 trees (15.36)
  • 1 ton of coated, lower-end virgin magazine paper (used for newsmagazines and most catalogs) uses nearly 8 trees (7.68)

How Can I Recycle Enough Paper to Save A Tree?

Using the number above that says there are more than 8,333 sheets of copy paper per tree, I figure that would require me to recycle more than 30 sheets per work day, for 50 work weeks to save one tree by myself.

But the point isn’t to save the world myself, or for you to do it by yourself.

If 250 employees at my company just recycle 30 sheets during a year, we’ll have saved one tree’s worth. It’s all about the team effort to make these little things worthwhile. Of course, those 250 employees would/could/should each recycle far more than 30 sheets during that time.

Now the question is: How can those of us who believe — and who trust concrete numbers as demonstrated above — get those who don’t to start putting some faith in their abilities to make a difference?

Related posts:

Recycling statistics

Reduce, Reuse & Recycle Your Way to Lower Overhead

Green Myth-Busting: Recycling

Photo: Adam Williams

  1. Robin Shreeves

    I don’t work in an office (well not one outside my house), but I’m going to be working with my local parent/teacher association and community green team to get a recycling initiative going strong in our community.

    These concrete statistics are going to save me a little research. Great post. Thanks Adam!

  2. Isbel Ingham

    Hi Adam,
    I appreciate your article. Have you seen the new video, “The Secret Life of Paper?” It’s very good, along the lines of “The Story of Stuff.”
    My favorite part of your article? That we’re not in this alone, hard for people in the U.S. to remember sometimes. It’s all about the group…which leads us to the tipping point that has to happen someday soon.
    Again, thanks for your efforts. My organization is about recycling electronics, a more difficult effort than paper recycling. But hooray to those of us who are working away at it, hm?

  3. Richard Tanfield-Johnson

    The thing about recycling is that it provides a raw product for re-use in manufacturing. Many people look at the carbon cost of re-use as opposed to extraction from new sources. In many areas of recycling, a cost saving can be made in terms of re-use over extraction. This includes the energy used in re-using a recycled resource. Chopping down trees for wood pulp from sustainable forests is all well and good but, like the issue with bio-fuels, someone or thing has to suffer somewhere along the line as a consequence. Resources are in effect finite and wilst recycled paper is not as good as the original source there are a number of significant advantages.



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