The Disastrous Downsides of Junk Mail on the World’s Environment

By Mauragh Scott.

We all know how annoying junk mail is. Every time we check the post, most of it is just endless amounts of food delivery discounts and catalogues. You can see the worst of it in university halls, with clubs leaving endless amounts of plastic and paper promotion for their themed nights. But junk mail is not just tedious. It also has serious effects on the environment and consequently contributes greatly to climate change.

Surprisingly, the popularity of junk mail is a relatively new phenomenon. Over the past few decades, the figures of the amount of junk mail being sent have skyrocketed. This is primarily due to the increase of importance in business advertising coupled with companies having greater access to an entire population’s addresses, thus allowing them to market to a greater audience. A Times article in 1990 reported on a huge increase in junk mail being distributed, with figures jumping from 4 billion to 63.7 billion in only a decade. However, with this increase in use, recent figures show that sending junk mail is not an effective form of advertising. The Environmental Protection Agency has roughly calculated that “44% of junk mail is discarded without being open or read, equalling four million tons of wastepaper per year, with 32% re-covered for recycling.” This figure suggests that companies are not substantially benefiting from sending junk mail; moreover, this figure also points out the amount of waste this phenomenon causes.

Photo source.

The toll of the environmental impact doesn’t end there. ForestEthics – an environmental organisation that campaigns to protect endangered forests – investigated the sum of the environmental damage, finding that “junk mail around the world produces as much CO2 as 9 million cars.” Notably, this figure does not include the whole amount of CO2 emissions that are continually produced through the process of junk mail. For example, it does not account for the emissions generated through the shipping of the mail to individuals nor its transportation to landfills. Even if the junk mail is recyclable, the issue does not improve because recycling itself also uses vast amounts of water and energy.

In the UK alone, very little work has been done to reduce the substantial amount of junk mail that is put through citizens’ letterboxes. For example, on the 10th of April 2019, the UK government released a report outlining what individuals can do to stop junk mail, such as registering with the ‘Mailing Preference Service’ which allows them to have their details taken off from direct marketing mailing lists. Although this scheme was paved with good intentions, it failed to address cases where mail is unaddressed. Official communications by the government is often sent under these circumstances, with headings like ‘the occupant’ and ‘the homeowner’ used to refer to the addressee. Companies have taken advantage of this loophole and have been able to send junk mail using these types of headings without having to cooperate with the ‘Mailing Preference Service’. This is bad news for individuals who wish to escape from the never-ending stream of junk mail – whether it’d be for privacy or environmental ethical reasons.

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In the international context of this subject, the UK is not a special case in its limited action in stopping the bombardment of junk mail on individuals. With no countries in the world putting adequate restrictions on junk mail, it seems that the UK governments ‘opt-out’ scheme (other countries, like the United States for example, also have this) is the best option on the table. It is also important to bear in mind that very little government research has been put into how much junk mail is distributed and the entirety of its impacts on the environment. Thus, trying to get the full picture can be difficult, with figures being unreliable and often out-dated. While researching for this article, the most reliable figures on junk mail within the UK dated back to 2006. Therefore, governments need to also put funding into the research of the environmental impact of junk mail as well as limit a company’s ability to send it out.

Ultimately, after considering the environmental consequences and the other negative impacts of junk mail, it leaves the question of why governments allow it to take place. If governments want to achieve any real progress into becoming greener, they need to put a stop to junk mail. Stopping junk mail is one of the simplest and smartest steps toward fighting and ending climate change. Often, the responsibility of ‘making the world a greener place’ is put on the individual. However, governments also need to step up and take more responsibility in that fight. The first step in reducing waste is to not produce waste at all; thus, governments all over the world need to do more to stop the huge amounts of junk mail that are in circulation.

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