October 31, 2008

The other day I ran into one of my favorite shows on TV, the Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made”. This particular episode was of special interest to me because they showed how fortune cookies are made, and I’m somewhat fond of them. The production of fortune cookies was about what I expected it would be: ingredients mixed; cookies baked; fortunes inserted and cookies folded; cookies wrapped, boxed and shipped.

During the segment, they gave out two interesting statistics that I was hoping they would. This particular fortune cookie factory produces four million cookies per day, and uses 5,000 different fortunes, which means that each fortune printed is going to be duplicated 800 times per day. Afterward, the number four million got stuck in my head, and danced around in there as I tried to sleep. I’m not sure why, but it just seems like a very large number to me.

Assuming 255 work days per year, that means that this particular factory produces 1.02 billion fortune cookies per year. According to the CIA World Factbook, the estimated population of the U.S.A. in July 2008 was 303,824,640, which means that this one factory alone makes over three and a quarter fortune cookies for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.A. And this is just one factory; there is at least one more producing fortune cookies because my normal Chinese restaurant gets theirs from a different manufacturer.

In this day and age you can’t help but be bombarded by environmental and other “green” issues. At least 25% of the e-mails I get at work have one of those “think about the environment before you print this e-mail” lines at the bottom. Of course, all this got me thinking about how much paper is used by the fortunes…fortunes that are read and thrown away in about three seconds. So, once again, I’ve done the math…

For this quantification, I’m going to make a few assumptions to keep things simple. First of all, I’m going to round numbers to make things a little more human readable…I’m not trying to land a rover on Mars here, so a few decimal points ain’t gonna matter. Second, I’m from the U.S.A. and we do things a little differently here, like use Imperial units of measure and use 8.5” x 11” as our standard paper size. Because of the fact that I’m comfortable with them, I’m going to use them for this quantification (also my ruler doesn’t have metric and I’m too lazy to convert the values, which is sort of ironic). I’m also going to base values on standard 20 lb. copy paper because I can’t find any real information on the thickness of fortune cookie fortune paper, which is definitely thinner.

I frequent two different Chinese restaurants, and visit others on occasion, and have gotten at least two different sized fortune cookie fortunes, each from a different manufacturer. The manufacturer featured on “How It’s Made” produces fortunes that measure 2.25” x 0.625”. I will be using this size in this quantification because of the fact that the show enumerated their production numbers.

As mentioned above, the large fortune measures 2.25” x 0.625” and has a surface area of 1.40625 square inches. An 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper has an area of 93.5 square inches. Based on that, one sheet of 8.5” x 11” can be made into about 66.5 fortunes, and, assuming 500 sheets in one ream, one ream of 8.5” x 11” paper can be made in to 33,250 fortunes.

Because the factory produces 4 million fortunes per day, it uses the equivalent of 120.3 reams or over 60,000 sheets of 8.5” x 11” paper per day. If we extend that out for the year, based on 255 working days, the equivalent of 30,676 reams of paper or 15.3 million sheets of paper are used for fortune cookie fortunes. If you took those reams of paper and laid them end to end, they would stretch 5.3 miles. If you stacked them on top of each other, they would be just shy of one mile tall (about eight feet shy to be exact).

Assuming that one tree makes 16.67 reams of paper (source), the fortunes produced by that one factory use over 1,800 trees per year (because the weight of fortune cookie paper is less than normal copier paper, this number is just a generalization).

That is a lot of trees and a lot of paper used to make something that most people throw away after adding “in bed” to the end of it and having a good laugh.

Of course, all the fortunes could be made from recycled paper, which would make the above quantification useless and just an excellent example of a WOMBAT.