Junk mail: random acts of environmental vandalism

Junk mail: random acts of environmental vandalism

We’re trying to reduce our waste. It isn’t just about recycling more, it’s also removing things from our lifestyle that need disposal. The usual suspects have been tackled, with bills now received online, loose fruit and veg chosen more often and we’re actively selecting products that have less packaging. Unfortunately, there is one area we’re not making much headway with – junk mail.

The cumulative impact of paper

Each week about 20 separate sheets of A4 paper arrive in our letter box. They vary from cheaply printed single sheet flyers to high-gloss, professionally designed materials to the occasional multi-page “free newsletter” that’s just a promotional catalogue for someone. This material arrives in our door despite a “No Junk Mail” notice displayed in a prominent position.

At the moment we live in a block with over 20 other apartments. That’s nearly a ream of A4 paper disposed of each week. If the recycling box conveniently placed by the mail boxes is to go by, little of it even makes inside an apartment. While we may feel warm and fuzzy for “doing our bit” for recycling, the truth is we should not have been put in that position. It’s false “environmentalism” to claim a win for recycling that was never wanted.

Paper carries a significant environmental impact that quickly builds up. The 26,000 sheets of A4 that arrive in our door each year contribute over 190kg of CO2*. That’s purely for the paper. Added to that is the environmental impact of the ink, the printing process, distribution and everything else that surrounds it.

Why “no junk mail” doesn’t work

In theory, a “No Junk Mail” notice should reduce the number of door drops required. This month our door walker will be given 100 leaflets to distribute, encounter 10 signs and comes back with 10. Next month 90 leaflets should be produced and so the waste falls at the point of production. Fewer leaflets requires less paper, ink, finishing, printing, packaging and distribution. A boon for our sustainability goals.

Only this isn’t what happens. Drops are calculated on letter box counts. The more letter-boxes there are, the more the distributor can charge, the more leaflets need printing and so on. It becomes a vicious circle where there is no motivation for anyone to reduce their waste. Instead, the advertiser sits back, counts the handful of sales that might happen as “wins” and remains blissfully ignorant of the damage their campaign is causing.

Those who deliver the unwanted leaflets and flyers have little incentive to honour a “no junk mail” sticker either. Commercial leafleters are paid for the number of deliveries they make, or have targets to deliver x amount in y time. Skipping a household could mean not achieving a target with a direct impact on their earnings. The personal investment in a cause means activists can view their leaflets as something more than “junk”, even though the recipient is clear on the matter.

Moving beyond the “no junk mail” sticker to cut back on unwanted post isn’t an easy task. In the UK the Royal Mail has an opt-out service that works on blanket flyers and leaflets, but doesn’t stop the “To The Occupier” junk some companies (such as Virgin Media) use to get round data protection law. It also stops official information from central and local Government, which may prove problematic. A quick scan of the various door-to-door distribution companies operating in my area showed not one that operated any kind of opt-out or even had an acknowledgement of the problem.

Given print runs are often based on letter-box counts, it shouldn’t fall to individuals to halt the flow of junk mail. Advertisers serious about reducing their CO2 emissions would do well to look at whether they should force their distributors to honour “no junk mail” signs and adjust print runs accordingly. Distribution companies would also do well to honour the signs as a display they’re serious about sustainability and adjust their practices accordingly.

Taking back control of our junk mail

As individuals there is little we can do beyond putting the stickers on our letter boxes and hoping we get skipped once in a while. We could write to companies, or post back their junk mail, but this is surely both childish and adding to the problem. Refusing to give them our custom might be more effective although it’s unlikely they’ll either notice or care unless we tell them.

Even then, I hold little hope. Two of the companies I contacted about their door-to-door junk mail drops included a telling piece of hypocrisy on their replies: “Please consider the environment before printing this email”. If only they applied the same thinking to their advertising.

How did I get 190kg?

According to Good Energy, 100,000 sheets of recyclable A4 paper has a 6,000kg CO2 cost. That’s assuming each sheet is recycled 8 times and not sent straight to landfill. I assumed 500 sheets of A4 (or their equivalent) were delivered to my apartment block each week, rounding for the number of flats and fluctuations to compensate for when we receive unwanted magazines and political pamphlets. 500 x 52 weeks = 26,000 sheets, which has a lifetime cost of 1,560kg. Divide by 8 to allow for recycling and that comes out at 195kg of CO2 each year of junk mail, excluding printing, ink, distribution and other CO2 costs.


Junk mail: random acts of environmental vandalism



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