Taming the Paper Mail Trail

Myriad digital options for corresponding are available.

By Claire Sykes

May 2009


You don’t ask for it, you don’t want it—but you get it anyway. Like weeds taking over a garden, junk mail invades your mailbox. Almost every day, you get another uninvited catalog, credit card offer or store coupon. But all this unsolicited postal matter is more than a mere pest. It’s also a threat to the environment.

The US Postal Service reports that in 2007 American households received 100 billion pieces of advertising mail, representing 60% of all mail delivered to them. Each year, bulk mail totals more than 100 million trees’ worth, equal to deforesting the entire Rocky Mountain National Park every four months, says Sean Sheehan, special projects director for the Center for a New American Dream, an environmental organization in Takoma Park, Maryland (www.newdream.org). “In 2005, 5.8 million tons of US direct mail ended up in the municipal solid waste stream, one-third of it eventually recycled and the rest burned or heaped in landfills,” observes Sheehan. “That’s enough to fill over 450,000 garbage trucks lined up bumper to bumper from Atlanta to Albuquerque.”


Making and distributing all that paper requires forests to be slashed, fossil fuels to be burned and hazardous chemicals to be poured. Then there are the environmental and economic costs of discarding it. “The paper industry is one of the most energy-intensive ones out there,” says Sheehan.

To be sure, the alternative—communication via computer—wouldn’t exist without the harmful chemicals, metals and plastics it takes to manufacture them. Then we hitch our computers up to power plants, more than half of which depend on coal, hardly a green resource. And recycling and disposing of old models only ups the ecological invoice.

But then again, consider the alternative. “Compared to paper, there are lesser environmental consequences in using a computer,” asserts Todd Larsen, managing director of Green America, a green economic initiative in Washington, DC (www.coopamerica.org).

Kicking the Paper Habit

For their direct mail, savvy companies are ditching paper for digital. That’s mainly so they can set an example of environmental stewardship, as the Boston-based Aberdeen Group, a global technology research firm (www.aberdeen.com), learned from 60% of the 125 respondents in their 2008 survey. “Customers are clamoring for more green initiatives and want to do business with environmentally friendly organizations,” says Alex Jefferies, senior research associate. Cutting costs of paper waste from direct mail is another reason businesses are making the switch to digital.

Companies that do send standard mailings can reduce the refuse it generates. “It comes down to customer-data hygiene,” continues Jefferies. They can purge incorrect addresses, merge duplicate lists, mail catalogs less often and piggyback promotional flyers with invoices.

Even better, they can give us paperless options. And if they don’t, we can demand them. Dial the company’s toll-free number and ask to be removed from their surface-mail list and be put on an email one.

You can read your favorite newspaper or magazine, pay your bills and do your banking—all online. Or, stop receiving direct mail entirely. “You have a legal right, under privacy and freedom-of-speech laws,” says Sheehan. The New American Dream’s “Declare Your Independence from Junk Mail” campaign (www.newdream.org/junkmail/optout.php) offers these list-removal options:


- The Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service costs you only $1, or nothing if you register online (www.dmachoice.org).

- 41pounds (named for the average weight of junk mail that you receive per year) rescues you from up to 95% of company mailing lists, then donates over a third of your one-time $41 charge to your choice of nearly two dozen environmental and social organizations (www.41pounds.org).

- Opt Out (The Center for Democracy and Technology) relieves you of all credit card mailings with a single toll-free call—888-5-OPTOUT (http://opt-out.cdt.org).

- The Do Not Mail Campaign, started by San Francisco-based ForestEthics (www.forestethics.org) and modeled after the 2003 government-created Do Not Call Registry, urges you to sign the petition to establish a national registry (www.donotmail.org), making it easy for you to junk the junk mail. (Since 2007, at least 19 state legislatures have followed the federal government’s lead by introducing bills to require the creation of state Do Not Mail registries.)

What You Can Do

You can keep the environment in mind when it comes to your own correspondence. Online methods of communication are expanding from email to social network sites and text messaging, the latter being the most immediate method. Emailing your correspondence can be far more efficient than paper mail ever could; it is useful in formal correspondence and offers the ability to send something, say an announcement or invitation, to many recipients at once.

There are ways to save energy when taking the digital route. For instance, a laptop computer uses about half the energy of a desktop. If you do shed your old computer, recycle or donate it (delete your hard drive first). Make sure your new computer sports the Energy Star logo, which proves its Environmental Protection Agency-backed energy efficiency rating. Turn your computer off when you’re done.

If you must send letters and cards by surface delivery, choose paper that’s post-consumer-waste recycled or has Forest Stewardship Council (third-party) certification. “And use the US Postal Service, because of their established routes, versus a private shipping company that makes a special trip,” says Larsen, pointing to fuel savings.

Just like you, businesses that normally send their mail online will probably always generate some of it without computers. Of course, the Postal Service is providing another incentive to go green and use email this month by bumping up the price of a first-class stamp another 2 cents.

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