How Many Trees Does Government Cost?

GoGreenWithGranicusCircleGreen technology in government has come a long way over the past two decades, reliably creating both real savings and efficiency. One type of efficient green technology, often overlooked, has been around since the laptop, but is positively exploding since the iPad: paperless strategies.

For the past fifteen years I’ve been working with governments to help them adopt paperless workflows, particularly in the legislative process. Paperless strategies can be contagious. If you start at the core of your business, there’s no debate about whether or not to do it for the rest. In fact, people generally start looking for more ways to go paperless because it makes the job so much easier; not just by way of the absence of paper shuffling, but in the vastly greater functionality and speed of digitized data.

So, let’s start at the core of local government – the meetings – and look at what it really costs.

Paper by the Numbers

Based on a sampling of hundreds of local governments of all sizes, the average local government has 2.89 council meetings per month and 11.25 committee meetings per month. For now, we’ll just focus on the council meetings: Each council meeting has an average of 10.7 council members, each of whom, plus at least 2 staff members, must receive an agenda packet for the meeting.

Agenda packets, on average, are about 120 pages. When you get into larger local governments, you’ll frequently find packets beefing up to 400-600 pages. So, this means that for each meeting, we’re looking at an approximate average of 1,524 pages of paper being printed monthly. Public attendance usually requires additional printouts, raising that number by about 360 more pages. At an average of 2.89 meetings per month, we’re seeing an average of 5,444 pages of paper being printed every month just for agenda packets… for each local government.

And how many local governments are there? There are over 3,000 counties and 20,000 cities. So, we’re talking about 125,229,480 pages of paper per month just for primary legislative body meetings across the US. That means 1,502,753,760 pages per year. And we didn’t even get into committee, boards, and commission meetings!

With reams of paper costing approximately $4 for 500 sheets, we’re talking about $12,022,030 of local taxpayer money nationwide spent on paper agendas per year. Just agendas. Just the council meetings.

Forest from the Trees

Most paper comes from pine trees. Pines are generally 40 to 60 feet high and a foot in diameter. The sixty footers yield approximately 80,500 pages of paper. Doing the math, that’s over 18,667 trees annually that local governments across the country cut down just to print out agenda packets.

Once all committee, board, and department meetings get factored in, we’re looking at multiplying that number by a factor of 6 or more, which means we’re talking about a whopping 112,002+ trees per year!

Pine trees generally fit about 350 trees in per acre. Extrapolating that, each year we’re clearing 320 acres, or approximately 80 city blocks, of trees that took a minimum of 17 years to grow, just to print out unwieldy and arcane paper agendas for temporary use. In the time it takes to re-grow one year’s worth of paper used for agendas, we’ll have taken down another 1,280 city blocks of trees for the same purpose. Imagine the real cost of that, not just to our pocketbooks, but to our environment.

While these calculations don’t take into account certain things like the use of recycled paper, or the municipalities that have already adopted paperless strategies, the numbers are still mind-numbing, considering its narrow focus of printed agendas.

Going Paperless

Obviously, we only tackled one area that local governments consistently waste with paper processes. But it’s the core area of government: meeting and deciding what to do. After that, paper processes continue their ubiquity, but a change at the core can spread change everywhere.

If this strikes a chord for you, it’s time to start pushing paperless government. If you’re a public employee, such as a city clerk, you’re in a prime position to start spreading the idea and making changes that matter. Contact us for more information on paperless government strategies, and check out the related articles below. Also, be sure to join our Go Green initiative; you can plant a tree with just a couple clicks!

Related Articles

This article is part of our IIMC 2012 series, which can be found here.

2 Responses to “How Many Trees Does Government Cost?”

  1. Tobias – I like where your head's at but let's face it, a lot of people won't survive the change-over to paperless. It just ain't going to happen…for a long time. It's hard to get people to change a habit that has been a part of their work for generations.

    I too am all for paperless, and hate to see wasteful / unnecessary printing but I work in communications for government and I see that people just love a hard copy when it comes to proofing, editing, and approving.

    So, I propose instead that you push for hemp paper. It'll be a shift in the right direction, economical, and will not demand a need for fundamental shifts in the way people work. Check this out:

  2. Kenneth, that's a fantastic article. It seems to indicate that the paper yield comparison is annual, or even seasonal. I'd like to verify that. That would mean that even if the paper yield were equal strictly by area measure, in the seventeen years it takes to regrow an acre of trees, 17-68 times as much could be had from the hemp acre. That's pretty immense. But hemp is also a political fight, and we need immediate solutions.
    Thanks again for the link!


Leave a Reply