Getting jack in the box

The anti-junk-mail campaign gains ground

Matt Conens hates junk mail with a passion, so he’s spent 20 years eradicating it from his life.

Matt Conens hates junk mail with a passion, so he’s spent 20 years eradicating it from his life.

SN&R Photo By Sena Christian

local impacts of global warming

One time when Matt Conens contacted a company’s customer-service call center requesting to be taken off a mailing list, the woman on the other end of the line copped an attitude. She snottily asked if he contacted everyone who sent him a catalog or promotional mailing.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” he responded. And he was not exaggerating.

For the last 20 years, Conens, a Sacramento resident, has been on a personal campaign to eliminate junk mail from his life. He spends only a little time each month calling or e-mailing businesses that send him unwanted mail, and he said the campaign has been wholly effective. Over the course of a recent week, he received five pieces of mail he wanted (bills and letters) and four pieces he didn’t, most of them addressed to “occupant.” The latter number was an anomaly. When it comes to junk mail nowadays, he usually goes weeks without receiving any.

Besides being an annoyance, junk mail is a waste of money and resources, Conens said. By calling companies to complain about the credit-card applications, catalogs, coupon books and advertisements they send, he wants to make big business aware of their negative environmental impact. It’s not enough that companies switch to printing on non-chlorine-bleached or recycled paper, he said. They should stop with direct mailings altogether. He also wants people to feel empowered to re-evaluate actual needs and reduce the waste in their lives.

“I really think that’s what the environmental movement is all about,” he said.

The pulp and paper industry is the third largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States after the chemical and steel industries. As people seek to make a dent in the climate crisis, they’ve embraced the old adage that little things add up. One idea that’s caught on: Reduce the junk mail that clutters our mailboxes.

Claims that eliminating junk mail strikes a heavy blow against global warming are not all that far-fetched. Collectively, Americans receive 62 billion pieces of junk mail a year, which equates to 4 million tons of paper coming from 100 million trees, and 28 billion gallons of water go into the production of that mail, said Kendra Ott of Green Dimes, a company that sells junk mail reduction kits.

Almost half of all junk mail is thrown away unopened and only 22 percent of that is recycled, she said. Although plenty of people with good intentions toss unwanted mail into recycle bins, even this does not necessarily end up being recycled because special inks, glossy coatings, wax, paste and the high concentration of heavy metals used in advertisements and catalogs make recycling the paper an expensive, and often forgone process. So where does that leave us? With almost six tons of junk mail ending up in U.S. landfills annually. Altogether, paper fills up roughly 40 percent of landfill space.

All that waste for what amounts to nothing more than an annoyance for many consumers.

“There are 113 million households in the U.S. and not one of them likes [junk mail],” Ott said, noting that for $15, Green Dimes will reduce a customer’s unwanted mail up to 90 percent within eight weeks. For every kit sold, the company plants 10 trees on the customer’s behalf through its partnership with American Forests, Sustainable Harvest International and Trees for the Future. More than 400,000 trees have been planted or saved through Green Dimes, according to Ott. The company’s “tens of thousands” of clients have stopped 1.5 million pounds of junk mail and saved 4 million gallons of water.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Ott said.

In 2006, three brothers in Michigan started 41 Pounds, named for the amount of junk mail the average American adult receives yearly. For a fee, 41 Pounds will remove customers’ names from between 25 and 30 direct-mail lists. Customers can then follow-up asking that their names be taken off additional lists. One customer gave 41 Pounds a list of 250 companies, said co-founder Sander DeVries.

The brothers donate almost half of their fees to community and environmental organizations, and have eliminated more than 1 million pounds of junk mail for their 5,000 subscribers, according to DeVries.

For those who’d rather take the issue into their own hands, Conens said the steps are easy. And he would know. After all, he’s had two decades of practice. As a kid, Conens loved receiving mail but as he grew older and started to notice how much of the mail was junk and how much of it ended up in the garbage, he appreciated it less and less.

“It’s stuff I don’t want and don’t have a need for,” he said.

Whenever he receives an unwanted direct mailing, he calls up the company and requests to be taken off the mailing list. Usually, they comply. He had one frustrating experience when he received a couple free issues of a bicycle magazine and then signed up for a subscription using a fake middle initial. Shortly after, he opened his mailbox to find a catalog from a different bicycle company addressed to that incorrect name. Conens canceled his magazine subscription.

He’s also spreading the word, recently asking the manager of his apartment complex to put information in a newsletter about how residences can reduce junk mail, which he thought was especially important because his complex doesn’t have recycling bins. At his apartment complex, a 30-gallon garbage bin sits below the mailboxes.

“It is usually full of junk mail every day, and that junk is not recycled,” Conens said. When he does receive junk mail, he saves it, later depositing the small collection at a recycling center.

Soon consumers may get help in dealing with unwanted mail. In April 2006, the Center for a New American Dream presented Congressional leaders responsible for postal oversight with 7,500 petitions and comments calling for a Do Not Junk registry modeled after the Do Not Call registry, which would make it easier for people to opt out of direct mailings. Fourteen states have introduced junk-mail-registry legislation so far this year (California is not one of them), and the first week of October has been deemed Junk Mail Awareness Week.

In the meantime, Conens suggested being proactive. Tell companies not to share personal information, contact senders and ask to be removed from mailing lists, avoid entering contests and, most important, be persistent.

“Certainly one person does not make an impact since bulk mail is generally sent out by the thousands,” he said. “But collectively it does make a difference.”