There are many aspects of our culture that actually do more damage than they are worth. I can think of no better example than the ubiquitous practice of direct mail marketing, more commonly referred to as junk mail. More than 100 billion pieces of junk mail are delivered in the United States each year, which comes out to 848 pieces per household.
This practice ensures that every dwelling in America receives a steady stream of unwanted offers for things we do not need and almost always do not want. The result is a daily ritual of scanning the mail, sorting the real stuff from the junk, and then (hopefully) recycling what's left - although about 44 percent of junk mail ends up in landfills unopened.
Unfortunately for all of us, just enough people actually respond to these invasive offers to make it profitable for the companies that do it.
Corporate profits are only possible because the real costs are not included on their balance sheets. Rather they are borne by others, labeled by economists as "externalities" in a process of legerdemain that makes Houdini's greatest accomplishments seem like child's play.
The junk in our mailboxes costs our communities more than $1 billion annually to "dispose" of. It also results in the loss of more than 100 million trees a year (the lungs of our planet) from endangered areas like Canada's boreal forest and the remaining forests of the Southeastern United States. In Canada alone, the equivalent of more than 220,000 acres of pristine forest is destroyed every year to make junk mail in the United States.
The junk mail process wastes about 28 billion gallons of water and emits more than 51 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses every year. That is the equivalent of 2.4 million cars idling 24 hours per day seven days a week and just as useless.
It would be nice if we had leadership on this issue. A national Do Not Mail registry would be a good start, but we've all seen the gridlock that masquerades as politics in Washington. The next best thing is personal action, so here are a few tips on what we can do to reduce the junk mail and help the environment.
First of all, vote with your dollars. Refuse to do business with companies that are willing to trash the planet to make a few bucks, and let them know it. This is the most powerful way to send a message that you do not appreciate junk mail.
The next step is to get off the mailing lists to reduce the amount of unwanted mail you receive. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to do it. Some are completely free while others charge a nominal fee. In either case, the results can be well worth it.
One of my favorites is Catalog Choice (www.catalogchoice.org). After creating a free account, you provide information about each unwanted catalog or junk mail offer you receive. They will contact the company on your behalf, requesting that they stop sending mail, remove your information from their lists, and cease sharing your information with anyone else. Your requests are stored on their site so you can log in to view your choices, submit new ones or have them resubmit a request that has not been honored. If you continue to receive unwanted mail from a particular company, they also have an option to submit a formal complaint.
Another option is to use a paid service like 41pounds.org (www.41pounds.org). The $41 cost for five years averages out to less than 70 cents a month and for that they will contact as many as 30 direct mail companies on your behalf to stop the majority of bulk mail that comes to your home every day.
Several other services are out there, including a new App that simply requires you to send a photo of the junk mail to them for processing. I'll post links to additional resources on my website.
Green Living is an ongoing journey, and putting the brakes on junk mail is an easy and affordable step along the way. Let's all do our part.
Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, a company committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. For more information and links to additional resources relating to this column, or to reach Steve, please visit www.greendream.biz.