The Junk Mail Nuisance

March 29, 2011

One hundred billion pieces of junk mail, including catalogs, credit card offers, and other unsolicited advertisements, are delivered in the United States every year. That’s about eight hundred pieces per household—or 30–40 percent of our mail. Mail-order catalogs alone make up more than 20 percent of this total. Enough catalogs are distributed each year for every man, woman, and child to have sixty of their very own. The kicker is an estimated 44 percent of junk mail is trashed before it is even opened. A friend of mine who worked in the ad industry for several years told me companies account for that percentage of throwaways. They figure they have to send out at least three mailings to reach just one new customer.

To make enough paper for those 100 billion pieces of mail, 100 million trees are felled and processed. This is equivalent to clear-cutting the Rocky Mountain National Park (more than 265,000 acres) every four months. Of course, we cut down trees for various other manufacturing and development purposes as well—at the rate of 7 million hectares per year. This deforestation comes at great cost: forests create oxygen, sequester carbon dioxide, provide habitat for hundreds of species, filter freshwater, maintain the Earth’s hydrologic cycle, regulate climate, and prevent erosion of topsoil. Deforestation accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the carbon emissions caused by human activity. And, at this point, less than 5 percent of old growth forests (i.e., the most productive forests) remain in the United States.

The environmental damage caused by the paper industry—and the junk mail industry in particular—extends beyond deforestation. Taking logging, production, delivery, and disposal into account, the junk mail industry emits greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 9 million cars. If more companies printed direct mail on recycled paper, they would cut these emissions significantly. Manufacturing a ton of virgin paper requires 17 million BTUs more than producing a ton of 100-percent-recycled paper.*

As a general rule—but especially since I started the experiment—I try to limit the advertising that comes my way. (No need for any extra temptation to buy! As an average American, I’ll probably spend a total of a year of my life watching commercials alone—never mind all the advertisements I’m exposed to in magazines, in newspapers, on websites, in Metro stations…) I’ve found it particularly easy to trim the number of catalogs I receive, primarily thanks to Catalog Choice, one of several online services that help folks reduce unwanted mail, save natural resources, and protect their privacy. (I’ve included websites for two other such companies with the references at the end of this post.)

Catalog Choice offers a free service and a donation-based unlisting service. The free service allows you, once you’ve created an account, to opt-out of mailings from individual companies. The service will contact the junk-mail vendor on your behalf to request removal from its mailing list. Catalog Choice has a list of more than three thousand companies that it will contact for you. This list is continually expanding, and I find that these days I can opt-out of nearly every catalog I receive via this site. For a $20 donation, Catalog Choice will remove your name from marketing lists created by third-party data brokers that trade your personal information to companies based on your buying history and behavioral characteristics. Obviously this will slash your annual junk-mail poundage even more.

If I can’t find a company on Catalog Choice, I call it directly. A phone number is usually provided on the mailing—even the coupon mags list phone numbers. In the rare case I can’t find contact information on the mailing, I look for a customer service number or e-mail on the company’s website. Tracking down this information and making calls took some time initially. I spent fifteen minutes on the phone with Comcast a few months ago, and I’m not even a subscriber! But now I don’t receive two postcards (one for me and one for the previous tenant) every time the company launches a mailing campaign. I also don’t receive Red Plum coupon newspapers or Clipper Magazine. It’s been months since I received a credit card offer. This means I take out the paper recycling less often. I spend less time shredding letters with my address on them. It takes only a minute or two to look through the daily mail. And, best of all, I’m not enticed to visit the mall just because I saw an appealing spread in a catalog or had coupons delivered to my home.

 

Sources

Most of the statistics I cite are from Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—And a Vision for Change (New York: Free Press, 2010), pp. 8 and 9.

Environmental Paper Network, “Increasing Paper Efficiency,” fact sheet, January 2008.

Environmental Paper Network, “Understanding Recycled Fiber,” fact sheet, June 2007.

Susan Kinsella, et al., The State of the Paper Industry, ed. Jennifer Roberts (Asheville, NC: Environmental Paper Network, 2007).

Todd Paglia, “Subsidizing Junk Mail in the Great Recession,” Huffington Post, January 29, 2010.

Other Junk Mail Opt-Out Websites

DMAchoice.org

41pounds.org

 

*People have told me that recycling paper uses more energy than creating new paper from scratch. It turns out this is a myth. Many conventional paper mills purchase less power from the grid than do recycled paper mills because they burn tree waste to generate the bulk of their power. This may seem like a good idea, but in fact, burning tree waste is as environmentally damaging as many other sources of power. And once you factor in this power source, it becomes clear that recycled paper uses significantly less power than conventional paper production. For more information about recycled paper, see this report by the Environmental Paper Network.

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