Opting Out of Junk Mail

As the holiday season approaches and we brace ourselves for a blizzard of unsolicited catalogs, it’s perhaps worth asking: Is the U.S. Postal Service really serving our long-term interests in promoting junk mail? It is a little-known fact that the post office actively encourages junk mailers to send us 19 billion unsolicited catalogs a year. Second- and third-class mailing constitutes a huge segment of its revenues.

The post office and junk mailers argue that they are doing us a favor. After all, the revenues from junk mail help keep everyone’s mailing rates lower. But should that be the only standard that they should guide them?

Forget about our individual annoyance at getting a mailbox full of mail we don’t want. (About 80% of my daily mail is junk.) The real issue is the harm to the environment. It takes over eight million tons of trees to produce the paper for each year’s output of catalogs. Put this in a larger context: Nearly half of the planet’s original forest cover is gone today. Forests have effectively disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 have lost more than 90% of their forest cover. Deforestation contributes between 20% and 25% of all carbon pollution, causing global climate change.

Junk mail contributes to these problems, and the U.S. Postal Service and its bulk-mailing customers are more a part of the problem than the solution. If it were not so intent on encouraging junk mailings, the Postal Service might better represent our collective interest in saving the planet. But ever since Congress mandated that the post office must turn a profit, and not merely be a government service that has a larger mission and vision, it has gotten used to coddling one of its biggest customers.

This helps explains why the post office has not made it easy for people to opt out of catalogs and other junk mailings. If there were an easy way for households to decline unsolicited mass mailings, it could have a huge impact. Instead, the post office, with a dwindling base of first-class mail and a huge number of employees, feels compelled to maximize its economic “through-put” (junk mail) despite the obvious harm to the environment. In a very real sense, the commons is subsidizing the post office’s bottom line. The full costs of sending billions of catalogs through the mail are not borne by merchants who mail catalogs, but by the environment.

So what is to be done?

I was thrilled to learn of a new website, Catalog Choice, that was recently launched by the Ecology Center, and endorsed by a number of environmental groups. You can go to the site, www.catalogchoice.org, and ask that your name be removed from the mailings of more than 600 catalogs. Since the site went public a month ago, more than 113,000 people have signed up to opt out of over 800,000 catalogs: an amazing launch to this project.

It’s too late to stop the mailing of this year’s holiday crush of catalogs, but you can start the new year off on the right foot. And the more people who join this effort, the more likely that it will pressure the post office and junk-mail industry to reduce gratuitous mailings.

Over the long term, it’s time to take a closer look at how the Postal Service is serving the environment. Its website lists a number of modest “sustainability initiatives” — alternative-fuel vehicles, recycling, etc. — but nary a mention of the junk mail. So who will step up to name and tackle this problem? In the meantime, go to Catalog Choice and do your part.