Asking people to change behavior that leads to solid waste is often an uphill battle. Regardless of the collective benefit, educating and persuading people to change the way they do things is difficult, which is why a program that tackles advertising mail, referred to by many as “junk mail,” is intriguing.
Historically, cities did little more than recognize that unwanted advertising mail was part of the waste stream, noting that only 40 percent of postal mail and 20 percent of telephone directories are recycled. Then, some communities decided to promote ways to stop the mail, providing links to Catalog Choice and the Direct Marketing Association. Unfortunately, links from a city website to third-party services just did little to move the needle in terms of waste reduction.
A year ago, Catalog Choice for Communities was launched to empower citizens to reduce unwanted advertising mail, which amounts to 10 billion pounds annually across the country, costing upward of $1 billion for collection and disposal. The program provides each community with their own tailored website, like chicago.catalogchoice.org, where residents can opt-out of unwanted mail. Residents can also opt out by taking a picture of junk mail with their iPhones or using a special postage paid envelope. Catalog Choice and the city work together to educate citizens about the program. To measure success, partner communities have real-time access to reports by zip code and date that show citizen participation, solid waste diversion, CO2 reductions and other environmental benefits.
In the city of Seattle, a fee levied against phone book directory distributors primarily finances the opt-out registry. In other communities, the city or county governments pays a small annual fee to offset the cost of setting up the website, managing the service, assisting with outreach and providing the reporting. With as few as five percent of the households participating, the program costs can be fully recovered by reductions in landfill disposal costs. Essentially, the per-ton cost of reducing paper waste through the program is less than most landfill tipping fees.
Though Catalog Choice had been successful in helping 1.5 million households, or 1.5 percent of the nation, before launching the Communities program, it was unclear whether the new approach would drive more paper reduction than a website link or doing nothing at all.
The results are in from the first year and the answer is a resounding “yes.” Cities participating in the program – including Chicago; Santa Fe, N.M.; San Jose, Calif.; Seattle and dozens more – stopped five times more unwanted advertising mail through Catalog Choice than other cities across the nation. In the 12 months since the inception of the Communities program, the participating cities produced more than 530,000 opt-outs, equating to more than 3 million pounds of solid waste prevented, 20,000 trees saved,19 million gallons of water conserved and 8 million pounds of greenhouse gas avoided.
Participation was particularly strong in Seattle, with 40 percent of households having submitted at least one opt-out through the program. As zero waste pioneer and Eco-Cycle Executive Director Eric Lombardi says, “It’s not just about recycling your junk mail at the end of the day, it’s about stopping the waste before it starts.”
Proactively addressing the issue of unwanted mail is critical for communities in pursuit of zero waste and landfill diversion goals. This program is unique in that it is measureable and it provides a compelling product that solves a problem citizens are acutely aware of – junk mail. Now that communities across the country are seeing results, interest in the program is growing and our collective reduction of solid waste is poised to reach new heights.
Chuck Teller is the executive director of Catalog Choice, based in Berkeley, Calif. The nonprofit corporation launched in 2007. For more information about Catalog Choice or their program for communities, email firstname.lastname@example.org.