17 Trees

Trying to see the forest in spite of a dubious statistic.

How Many Times Have You Heard That recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees? This idea is posited on countless Web sites (at least 31,500 by my Google search) as one reason to recycle. I've even seen the message on garbage trucks promoting recycling programs!

Web sites from countries that use the metric system similarly claim that recycling one tonne of paper saves 17 trees. This is a little odd because a metric tonne weighs 2,204.622 pounds, which is why it is called a “long” ton as opposed to our non-metric 2,000-pound “short” ton. The only possible explanation is that metric trees are bigger.

But does it really matter if the claim of saving 17 trees is accurate? To me, as a writer, it does. I figure that it's one thing for a reader to disagree with my opinion. I can live with that. I'm right, he's wrong. Life goes on.

But when I'm wrong on the facts, why should the reader agree with me? I thought such a simple claim couldn't be accurate because papermaking has too many variables, such as species of trees and types of paper. So I started researching, fairly sure it wouldn't be hard to prove wrong.

I couldn't find out when or with whom the 17-tree idea originated. The only reference I found was the Environmental Protection Agency's 1974 report to Congress on resource recovery and source reduction. I joined the agency two years later, when I was hired to be EPA's Johnny Recycleseed. I still have a copy of the report. Alas, I couldn't find any mention of the 17 trees.

Then, two things happened. First, I came across a U.S. Forest Service research note, “Pulp Yields for Various Processes and Wood Species,” which included an insert titled “Paper Comes from Trees: But How Much from How Many?” The author noted that the question couldn't really be answered because of all the “ifs” involved, such as the species and size of trees. In fact, paper is often made from wood that would otherwise be burned as waste. But the Feds went on to say that while the claim can be picked apart on technical grounds, it serves a useful purpose because “increasing recycling will contribute significantly to relieving pressures on the timber supply.” It then detailed precisely how you could figure out for yourself how many trees are saved by recycling a ton of newspaper.

The other event was the last episode in HBO's TV series about John Adams. In his twilight years, Adams was shown John Trumbull's famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which has all the signers gathered together and the five authors standing in front. Adams hated the painting because it was not factually accurate. They had never gathered as a group to sign the Declaration. But he missed the point. Trumbull's painting expresses a greater truth about the signers' unity and determination, a more important fact than the reality of when each person signed.

So it is with 17 trees and paper recycling. It may not be factually accurate, but it expresses a more fundamental truth. Regardless of how many trees recycling “saves,” recycling clearly has a beneficial impact on forest resources. I can live with that.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].

By Chaz Miller
The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.