How much paper can be made from a tree?
Or, alternatively, how many trees are needed to make a given amount
There is no simple answer to these questions, and all calculations
can be no better than "ballpark estimates."
Many people have heard the statistic that "a ton of recycled
paper saves 17 trees." The "17 trees" number was
popularized by Conservatree when it was a paper distributor, based
on a report to Congress in the 1970s. It was calculated for newsprint,
which is made in a totally different papermaking process from office
and printing papers. But it was the best number anyone had, so it
became the number everyone used to calculate number of trees saved
by recycled paper, or number of trees cut to make virgin paper,
no matter what type of paper they were talking about.
Paper is made from a mix of types of trees. Some are hardwood,
some are softwood. In addition, some are tall, some old, some wide,
some young, some thin. Many of the "trees" used to make
paper are just chips and sawdust.
So how can one talk about a "typical tree"? And do numbers
calculated 30 years ago still apply to today's much more efficient
We decided it was time to update these numbers, so Conservatree
has tracked down some ways to make ballpark estimates more reliable
than in the past.
CONSIDERATIONS IN CALCULATING TREES TO PAPER
What kind of paper are you talking about?
Paper made in a "mechanical" or "groundwood" process (e.g. newsprint,
telephone directories, base sheet for low-cost coated magazine and
uses trees about twice as efficiently as
paper made in the "kraft" or "freesheet"
process (e.g. office and printing papers, letterhead, business cards,
copy paper, base sheet for higher-quality coated magazine and catalog
papers, advertising papers, offset papers).
Is the paper "coated" or "uncoated"?
The fiber in a coated paper (most often used for magazines and
catalogs, with a clay coating that may be glossy or matte, or other
finishes) may be only a little more than 50% of the entire sheet,
because the clay coating makes up so much of the weight of the paper.
As a ballpark estimate, you can use .64 as the fiber estimate for
coated papers compared to the entire weight of the sheet. (Fiber
estimate calculation by Alliance for Environmental Innovation)
So how many trees would make a ton of paper?
Claudia Thompson, in her book Recycled Papers: The Essential Guide
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), reports on an estimate calculated
by Tom Soder, then a graduate student in the Pulp and Paper Technology
Program at the University of Maine. He calculated that, based on
a mixture of softwoods and hardwoods 40 feet tall and 6-8 inches
in diameter, it would take a rough average of 24 trees to produce
a ton of printing and writing paper, using the kraft chemical (freesheet)
If we assume that the groundwood process is about twice as efficient
in using trees, then we can estimate that it takes about 12 trees
to make a ton of groundwood and newsprint. (The number will vary
somewhat because there often is more fiber in newsprint than in
office paper, and there are several different ways of making this
type of paper.)
SOME TYPICAL CALCULATIONS
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 do you calculate how many trees are saved by using recycled
(1) Multiply the number of trees needed to make a ton of the kind
of paper you're talking about (groundwood or freesheet), then
(2) multiply by the percent recycled content in the paper.
1 ton (40 cartons) of 30% postconsumer content copier paper saves
1 ton of 50% postconsumer content copier paper saves 12 trees.