The war on junk mail is going back to its roots.

While spam email messages can be deleted with the press of a
button, paper junk mail such as catalogs and phonebooks have ended up in the
waste stream for years, forcing municipalities and companies to pick them up
and bear the costs.

According to Catalog Choice, a nonprofit mail preference service that allows users to remove their addresses from the databases of direct-mail advertisers and data-brokers, direct-mail advertising accounts for 10 billion pounds of solid waste every year while costing municipalities $1 billion in disposal fees.

That’s equivalent to 80 million trees and 33 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, the group said.

Cities that use Catalog Choice stop three times more unsolicited mail than their counterparts, said Chuck Teller, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based group, which started in 2007.

It has processed 20 million opt-outs so far, he said.

“With junk mail reduction, there are only 3% to 5% of households that know how to do this. By providing this service in concert with solid waste programs, it’s a nice match,” Teller said. “We’re going back to the source. It is truly waste prevention when you can stop the flow of waste into your community.”

The public’s revulsion toward junk mail is just as much a part of America as apple pie, said Tom Watson, manager of the EcoConsumer project for the King County Solid Waste Division in Seattle.

The county began a partnership with Catalog Choice in August.

“We want to make it easier for the public to reduce their
paper junk mail,” Watson said. “It has been an annoyance for the public for 50
years.”

Despite delivering wads of junk mail each day, the United States Postal Service is still struggling to stay afloat.

According to the New York Times, USPS wants to cut Saturday deliveries so it can save around $40 billion over a decade.

As a result of decreased mail-handling, the service is being hampered by a $9 billion deficit this year on its $67 billion budget.

It’s also considering trimming 220,000 jobs in a three-year stretch, or a third of its workforce, and replacing 3,650 of its 32,000 post offices with “locally contracted retailers,” the Times reported.

As part of Catalog Choice’s pilot program that launched this year, King County, along with several other places around the U.S., were given customized websites that tracks user participation by zip code and informs them of how much solid waste is being saved.

Users of Catalog Choice can block 4,100 companies, and if a company they’re looking for isn’t on the list, they can ask Catalog Choice to add it, Teller said.

It can take up to 90 days before companies process the opt-out requests and stop sending advertisements.

“Offering this service and getting this data is a way of holding these companies more accountable,” Watson said. “If you want to get off their list and they refuse to participate and honor those requests, Catalog Choice tracks that. We can put pressure on them.”

Since Kansas City, Mo., started working with Catalog Choice
in March, 167 people opened accounts, said Kate Becker, program manager for
Keep Kansas City Beautiful, an environmental advocacy group that obtained the
service.

“I’ve noticed a reduction. … It’s working pretty well,” Becker said.

San Jose, Calif., a town with 1 million people that recycles 74,000 tons of junk mail and mixed paper each year, signed on with Catalog Choice in August.

City Council member Sam Liccardo said the service will help the city divert waste from landfills that are “filling quickly.”

“We’re hoping to start a viral movement to vastly reduce the volume of paper waste that comes in,” Liccardo said. “It can save hundreds of thousands of trees each year.”

Updater.com, a service similar to Catalog Choice’s, launched in July. David Greenberg, company founder, said his site allows users to create their own spam filter for paper mail and prevents data brokers who compile marketing lists from selling users’ information.

The site has already received thousands of hits, he said, and partnerships with several municipalities are in the works.

“Over time, more and more people will be interested in turning off this kind of advertising. We’re not interested in working against direct marketers,” Greenberg said. “We can work with them so that their data is accurate. Many people value their catalogs.”

Most data brokers don’t want people to opt-out from their lists, so some will make the process more difficult by not allowing Updater.com to remove a person unless they have a signature. In those instances, Greenberg said Updater sends an opt-out form for customers to sign.

“It’s one step they can take,” Greenberg said. “If enough people do it, it can make a huge impact.”

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Vince Bond Jr. at vbond@crain.com or 313-446-1653.

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