Hey Mr. Green,
If you carpool to work, recycle and compost, ride a bike often instead of taking a car, turn off lights and electronic devices, don’t leave the water running when brushing your teeth, use reusable cups and plates instead of disposable ones, buy local organic products, and buy energy-efficient appliances, how do you tally that in trees saved or wildlife saved? I need to show the employees at my organization how much a few small actions can change the world for the better. I would like to use figures or stats to do so. Can you help?
–Ellen in Denver, Colorado
That’s a mighty tall and comprehensive order, but here goes: Regarding trees and paper, each person in the United States uses around 660 pounds of paper a year. Assuming the oft-cited 17 trees per ton of paper, this translates into about 1.2 billion trees that could be saved if everybody recycled. Of course, a lot of trees are already being saved because 57 percent of paper is already being recycled.
To be fair, I should point out that there are contrarians who claim recycling actually reduces the total number of trees because it increases paper supply, thereby reducing the economic incentive to plant more trees for pulp.
Regarding energy reduction, the average per-capita carbon dioxide emission in the United States is more than 20 tons per year. If your colleagues cut their energy use in half, which is easily doable by following your advice, they would make a huge reduction in this dreary exhalation, this sigh of a tired and clueless economy. Take the example of cars alone. We now burn about 140 billion gallons of gasoline in our cars per year. If everybody cut their automobile use in half by carpooling and biking, that’s at least 70 billion gallons saved, or 700 million carbon tons kept out of the air.
They’d also save a lot of money. The average car goes about 12,000 miles per year. If it gets 25 miles per gallon, that’s $1,440 at $3 per gallon. If people can get by without a car, they save much, much more, from $5,500 to $9,100 per year, since the cost of owning and operating a vehicle is 55 cents per mile for a small sedan driven 10,000 miles, and 91 cents a mile for an four-wheel-drive SUV.
The number of trees and creatures saved from this reduction is hard to determine, since we don’t yet know what effect global warming will have on populations of flora and fauna. But it sure would cut roadkill rates in half, which by some estimates nails about 1 million deer, 1 million small mammals, and probably many more birds than that (I can’t comment on reptile-and-amphibian mashing, as these are underrepresented in our mammal-centric studies.) Maybe the animal-rights guys should lay off the hunters and focus their efforts on Bambi-slamming cars instead.
As for buying organic, that will obviously reduce pollution because organic products don’t use chemical poisons or fertilizers. This is a very welcome development for wildlife, though it’s hard to get an estimate on how much of it would be saved by detoxifying our agriculture. But when you consider that hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides are dumped on corn and soybeans alone, and that organic farming reduces this to zero, the benefits are obvious.
Generally speaking, buying local reduces the energy involved in shipping food long distances, but this is very difficult to quantify because of differences in the efficiency of local farmers’ vehicles and the amount they haul per trip. But in many cases, it probably takes less energy to move a tomato 20 miles instead of 2,000.