Monday, November 22, 2010

Environmental Impact of Leafleting

I got a lot of positive feedback in response to my previous post on whether being vegan is worse for the environment. One of the few objections raised in response, however, was the question of what the environmental impact of leafleting is (and reposting my link Vegan Outreach's leafleting totals). This is an excellent question.

As with almost all things, printing booklets has an environmental impact in a large number of areas, but the objection I hear most often when leafleting is that people don't want to waste the paper because of the trees that need to be cut down to create that paper. This creates an interesting dichotomy, since those of you who have read Livestock's Long Shadow or even the related press release will recall that the majority of land deforested in recent years is now being grazed by livestock. If only we had some way to compare any potential decrease in deforestation due to a decrease in livestock consumption from leafleting, with whatever deforestation may have been caused to print the booklets.

The fact regarding deforestation given in Livestock's Long Shadow is that, “By 2010 cattle are projected to be grazing on some 24 million hectares of Neotropical land that was forest in 2000.” This did not actually originate with the Livestock's Long Shadow report, but is actually attributed to an article published in the journal Global Environmental Change titled Projecting land use changes in the Neotropics: The geography of pasture expansion into forest. Since this article is only focused on neotropical areas, and the fact we are given relates to only grazing cattle, not all deforestation related to animal consumption is being included in the figure we have been given, but we will use it as a baseline for the minimum amount of recently forested land now being used to support our demand for animal products. 24 million hectares in the last decade, or 2.4 million hectares per year.

According to the USDA, worldwide production of beef and veal in 2010 is expected to be around 7.2 million tonnes. This is a slight decrease from a peak of around 7.6 million tonnes in 2007, but serves as a fairly accurate yearly estimate for the past decade. This means that for every tonne of meat, 1/3 of a hectare of neotropical forest is deforested ([2.4 Mha/yr] / [7.2 Mt/yr]), or 3.3 square meters per kilogram of beef.

I leaflet exclusively in the United States, where the total beef consumption in 2009 was 26.9 billion pounds, or about 40 kilograms per person. This means each person in the US contributes to about 130 square meters (40*3.3) of neotropical deforestation per year through their consumption of grazing beef and veal alone.

How many sheets of paper would be in that same 130 square meters of forest? Assuming Pokomoke State Forest in Maryland can serve as a fairly typical example of forest, I calculate that there is roughly 7300 board feet of wood per acre there. That would be roughly 1.8 board feet per square meter. (Pokomoke is mostly brushy forest as opposed to tall trees, which probably explains the low number). Doing some online research I see numbers ranging anywhere from 2000 to 76000 board feet per acre, with just under 10,000 seeming like a fair middle ground, so I will use the more pessimistic Pokomoke number in order to continue to favor beef in all of our estimates. One board foot of wood would weigh roughly 2 kilograms, which we will pessimistically estimate yields only 1 kilogram of paper. A typical density for printer paper is 20lbs (9.1kg) per ream (500 sheets). This would be equal to 55 sheets per kilogram. We have turned each square meter of forest into 1.8 kilograms of paper, so this would be 100 sheets of paper per square meter.

Out of that same 130 square meters deforested for beef production we could typically harvest roughly 13000 sheets of paper. Each booklet I hand out contains the equivalent of 16 sheets of paper, so even if out of every 100 booklets passed out, only one person reduces their consumption of beef by a mere 1 part in 8, our forests will still have come out on top.

I have reached this conclusion making every estimate along the way as beneficial to the pro-beef conclusion as could be reasonably argued. I have even left out important considerations in favor of printing booklets. Booklets are printed on lighter paper than printer paper, paper is predominantly made out of otherwise unusable wood scraps and recycled paper bits with only a fraction coming from newly harvested wood, and land used for logging is replanted once logging is completed. We have ignored land demands for non-grazing cattle and deforestation from cattle that wasn't caused in neotropical regions. No matter how I look at the problem, I am forced to come to the conclusion that leafleting for Vegan Outreach is ultimately beneficial in preventing deforestation as well.

Methodological Shortcomings

One aspect the methodology I have used cannot take into account is the motive for the deforestation. It is entirely possible that cattle farmers are merely taking advantage of land opened up by the logging industry, or that timber harvesters are merely collecting wood off of land that is going to be opened up for grazing in any case. Additionally I have treated world beef as if it is a single commodity, all bearing equally in any deforestation it may have caused, when in reality there is a huge variety in impact attributable to any given producer. The numbers used have been averaged and speak well to the average consumer, ignorant of the details in their food choices, who is being leafleted.

Once again, I would like to emphasize that I am not trying to promote veganism for environmental reasons, but I feel this example speaks well as to why the free distribution of information on paper nearly always outweighs any potential environmental cost.


  1. You also ignore the idea that paper companies want forests, beef companies want to get rid of forests. According to my economics textbook, using paper can cause forests to grow. I doubt using paper will, but I suspect the effect mitigates the deforestation caused by getting paper from the natural forests.