Fighting the crusade against fake numbers, one utility van at a time.

Once in a while I’m asked “what makes you special?” It’s hard to give an honest answer other than “I’m not a snowflake, there’s nothing really unique about me”. Even my most esoteric pursuits form great tribes around them. The raison d’être of Putanumonit is that whatever peculiar idea I can write about, it will resonate with at least a thousand people somewhere in the world.

With that said, I probably have a pretty singular reaction to utility company vans.

ConEdison are lying about paper bills
Text: “If just 20% of all U.S. households paid their bills online, in one year we could save almost two million trees.”

Most people would pass by this truck and not think twice about it. Most wouldn’t even think once. I pass by this truck and think: 20% of household is like 20 mil, so 10 households per tree per year sounds completely made up and I’ll bet 5:1 that this number is off by at least a factor of 2 and ConEdison are lying because everyone is innumerate.

Then I get home and do some Googling:

  • There are 125 million households in the United States. Generously assuming that they all get electrical bills, 20% of them are 25 million households.
  • My own bill from ConEdison is 2 pages. If ConEdison cared about trees they’d use double sided printing, but let’s be generous again and assume 4 total pages of paper statement per household per month, including the envelope and the check.
  • A letter sized page is 8.5″ x 11″, or 216 mm x 279 mm, which comes out to 0.06 m2. Four pages have an area of 0.24 m2.
  • We needed the area calculation because paper weight is measured in GSM, or grams per square meter. Common printer paper weighs 74 GSM, so 0.24 square meters of that paper weigh 74 x 0.24 = 17.7 grams.
  • 17.7 grams of paper per month * 12 monthly bills = 213 grams of paper per year per household that refuses to pay their bills online.
  • With 25 million households, that’s 5.3 million kg of paper per year.
  • 24 trees make 1 ton of printer paper, so a single tree makes 41.7 kg.
  • 5.3 million / 41.7 = 127,000 trees.

Not “almost two million”, not even within an order of magnitude of two million. A mere 127,000 trees. For scale, that’s 0.25%  of the 50 million trees a single country can plant in a day.

By the way, did I mention that I worked for a major paper manufacturer? American paper companies practically never log new forests. They mostly own the tree farms, which are basically small private forests, that supply the timber they need. Also, a fiber of paper can get recycled around 7 times before it becomes unusable, but often get recycled less because paper is so cheap that some recycling isn’t worth it on the margin.

If 100% of American households switched to unrecycled paper bills tomorrow, the paper industry would react by increasing the recycled paper content in products like paper towels and toilet tissue and recycling paper more times. They’ll also plant more trees in the tree farms, and supply will catch up to demand over a few years. If 100% of households switched away from paper, the tree farms (which in the process of growing into paper do nice things like capture CO2 ) would be replaced by something else, like parking lots.

Here’s what ConEdison is really telling you:

ConEdison being honest about paper bills

I just wanted to remind you that Putanumonit is your only hope in a world that’s constantly using fake numbers to bamboozle you,  and since this post was really short you have enough time to take the Putanumonit survey and help make this blog even better.