Trees Saved by Less Checks For 1419 Reader

Elmer EverGreen sorting checks on an IBM 360 System 1419 MICR Check Sorter

A positive ecological move in our modern society is the reduction of paper check usage.  Check usage has been around for a long time.  The Romans had a form of checks, although I imagine usage was quite limited. I have trouble imaging that Spartacus sat down every month and wrote out checks to pay his bills.

But check usage really took off in the 1950′s when automated methods of handling them became available.  I’m quite well acquainted with some of these automated methods.  Years ago, one of my first professional jobs was  a third shift computer operator.  I would operate our IBM System 360 mainframe, reading 350,000 checks per night into the system, and then sorting them while operating the mainframe computer.

This will keep you pretty busy and focused.

I read and sorted them on an IBM 1419 MICR Check Reader / Sorter, a large Rube  Goldberg looking machine like the one pictured above.  It had many moving mechanical parts and would feed the checks through at about twenty-five mph.  At this speed, it took a lot just to keep the machine fed and not running out of checks to read.

One of the more challenging aspects of the job was when someone had gotten a lump of a chocolate bar they were eating stuck to one of the checks, or they had stapled a check (the old please don’t fold, staple or mutilate line – but checks, not cards).

The machine would make a loud noise as the check stuck in the machine, all the while slamming hundreds of other checks in behind it at twenty-five mph and coming to a stop.  I had to pull all these jammed up checks out of the machine to get it started again — and, as you can imagine, tape together pieces of some of the checks that had been torn apart.

This usually happened one or twice a night and helped me hone my colorful language skills as a young man.  Fortuntely,  I was the only person in the bank on the third shift, so no one was offended.

So I have perhaps an emotional as well as ecological basis for thinking reduced check usage is a good thing.

So how many trees are saved by reduced check usage?  It’s hard to say but here is a very rough estimate for you.  One figure I see is that Americans use 60,000,000,000 checks per year and that number has been dropping since the 1990′s due to online payments.

Assuming a usable cord of wood (8 feet wide, 4 feet deep, and 4 feet high) is created out of each harvested tree, that will make 460,000 checks.  At 60 billion checks per year that’s over 13,000 trees.  Remember from an earlier post that we said a tree would take 10 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere per year.  That means these trees would help our CO2 problem by 130,000 pounds (or 65 tons).

That’s a big number.  And it’s probably larger than that since paper checks are often mailed, and it takes a tree to make 61, 370 envelops and 4,384,000 stamps.

All told, our reduction in check usage is saving trees.  And we aren’t doing this to save trees, but for personal convenience.  But it doesn’t matter, the trees are saved none the less.

Not all ecological improvements require great sacrifice — some are actually convenient to do.

Have a green day – J. Daniel

P.S. I got much of my information from A Tree for Each American, American Forest & Paper Association, Washington, DC.

Also, Wikipedia has an interesting article on checks and their history at

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