Action 104. Taking on unnecessary plastic, one piece of junk mail at a time.


Back in Action 98, I took on the challenge of trying to reduce our junk mail at home; and I have to say, it seems like its working! We definitely are getting fewer catalogs these days. But the battle against junk mail feels rather Sisyphean- as soon as you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere, the junk mail industry seems to roll back down on you in some other form. The latest rendition is coming in the form of plastic-added junk mail.

Recently, I’ve gotten several pieces of mail from disparate businesses and organization that contains a little plastic “membership” card, or some kind of offer in it on a plastic card, or even two cards in a single mailing. Pretty much 100 times out of 100, these are cards I didn’t ask for, and I don’t want. Would you put one of these things in your wallet? Maybe use it to clean crud off the counter? ok, I could maybe see that as a use for it. In order to recycle the mail it came in, first I have to yank the plastic pieces out, which seem to often come adhered in some manner to the paper mailing. Back in Action 98 I cited the statistic that about 44% of junk mail is never opened, so in this case, we’ve got paper and plastic being thrown away together; of the proportion that does make it into the recycle bin rather than the trash, never having been looked at, how is that being handled at the recycling plant, as its no longer paper, but a paper-plastic mix? My guess is, not very well. So adding all this plastic is causing a whole mess o’ disposal issues that seem pretty darn unnecessary.

I weighed one of these little plastic cards I got in the mail, and it weighed about 4 grams. Four grams- that’s not very much, is it? No, but again we come back to the issue of scaling up and cumulative effects in the decisions we make. If each of these companies is sending, let’s say, 10,000 mailings, each one with a little piece of plastic in it, that’s 40,000 grams, or 88 lbs, of useless plastic that nearly half the time is never looked at, and probably in almost all cases, serves no purpose whatsoever. So that’s 88 lbs of plastic times how many organizations are doing this? If let’s say a hundred businesses and nonprofits are jumping on this plastic-card bandwagon, and I’d bet that’s a conservative guess, now we are up to close to 9,000 lbs of plastic that serves pretty much zero purpose.

In the last month I’ve gotten these plastic cards from three totally unrelated organizations: a conservation organization, a political party, and Comcast. I can understand Comcast- they aren’t really in the environmental mindset. Maybe even the political party. But National Wildlife Federation? Come on guys, seriously? Defenders of the animals that are at risk of  the bioaccumulation of fossil-fuel based plastics and chemicals in our oceans and air, and of climate change impacts? And I didn’t just get one of these little plastic doohickies from NWF: I got 5, over the course of a few months. Five!

So what does one do about this plasticizing trend in our junk mail? This is a particularly insidious problem, because the inconvenience to the consumer is minimal- most of us probably chuck it in the trash without thinking twice; it seems like such a small amount of plastic to get concerned about; and its coming from all different directions. I wish I knew of a way to systematically address this problem, but in the absence of that, I’m contacting those who send me this crap and asking them to stop it. Not that that is easy either, its nigh impossible to get the right person on the line who knows anything about the issue or, even if they do, tougher still to convince them you care and they should too. I spent about an hour with Comcast trying to even FIND a way to give customer feedback, period (that probably doesn’t shock anyone who is their customer), and when I called the Democratic National Committee, I think the customer service person thought I was crazy. And National Wildlife Federation- Im still trying to find who I can mail all these bits of plastic back to.

But what else can we do? Sitting here constantly throwing away these bits of plastic doesn’t seem like a solution. I’m not sure how much good my tiny irritated voice is making in this deluge, but I can’t sit here and accept it like it doesn’t matter, as I’ve pretty much convinced myself with some basic math that it does. I’m open to any ideas friends and readers might have- let’s roll that Sisyphean ball of junk mail and plastic out the door, once more.


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