BOSTON — William Hughes knows a lot about garbage. For 23 years, Mr. Hughes has studied the way people live by overturning trash bins, digging up landfills, and examining the debris.
"In the 1940s, the landfills contained a lot of glass," says Hughes, the co-director of The Garbage Project at the University of Arizona at Tucson. "Now there's more paper."
In 1990, Hughes kept track of all the unwanted mail that landed in his mailbox. It weighed 66 pounds. Now he's getting even more unwanted mail, he says.
Nationwide, 75 billion pieces of third-class mail were delivered by the United States Postal Service (USPS) last year. Most of it ended up in landfills. Much of it hadn't even been opened. Junk mail is expensive to recycle because of the glossy paper, glassine envelope windows, and the doodads that direct-mailers often include. Besides, many people don't even think to recycle junk mail - they just pitch it in the nearest trash bin.
Mail means different things to different people. The direct-mailer's "advertising mail" is the Postal Service's "third-class mail," the politically correct person's "unsolicited mail," and the average person's "junk mail." For the purposes of this article, we'll use the USPS term.
There are compelling arguments on either side of the third-class mail debate.
Some say that third-class mail creates 4 million tons of waste, eats up 320 million tax dollars in disposal costs, and uses 28 billion gallons of water for paper processing. According to the Consumer Research Institute in Gainesville, Fla., the average American spends eight months of his or her life sifting through mail solicitations.
Proponents of third-class mail say there's more to it than meets the eye.
"Third-class mail is a major contributor to our bottom line," says Roy Betts a USPS spokesman. "We look forward to the growth of that market." Twenty-three percent of USPS revenues come from third-class mail.
Mail-order businesses point to a Simmons Market Research Bureau study as evidence that Americans appreciate third-class mail. The study notes that some 98.5 million Americans shopped from the comfort of home in 1994, and those purchases directly contributed $356 billion to the US economy. Such sales also helped keep the air clean, since people did not have to drive to a store, says the Direct Marketing Association (DMA).
Since direct-mail marketing is here to stay, says Tom Watson, coordinator of the Seattle-based National Waste Prevention Coalition (NWPC), "we must find ways to prevent waste."
In an effort to encourage direct mailers to be less wasteful, the NWPC gives Junk Mail Awards for the best and worst direct mailers.
Mountain Rose Herbs, Inc., a retailer in Redway, Calif., was named the best third-class mailer last year for having an 800 number you can call to to delete your name from its mailing list, ignoring customers who have not ordered in 18 months, and for not renting its mailing lists to others. (Many mail-order companies - even charities and government agencies - share or rent their mailing lists with others.)
THE worst mailers were Reader's Digest, for its sweepstakes mailings, and Coca-Cola, which sent out empty 20-ounce plastic bottles in paperboard boxes for one promotion.
An increasing number of waste-conscious and mail-weary citizens are having their names deleted from mailing lists, either selectively or wholesale. Last year, nearly 800,000 people demanded that their names be removed from mailing lists through the DMA's Mail Preference Service. (See box at left.)
Others have launched personal crusades. For months, John Nelson of Northridge, Calif., dumped his unwanted mail in front of the offices of major direct mailers. Although it took some time and patience, Mr. Nelson's mailings eventually stopped.
Anti-third-class-mail guerrillas have taped bricks to prepaid postcards and over-stuffed postpaid return envelopes as a way of hitting back. This doesn't work, says Use Less Stuff Report editor Robert Lillenfeld: The Post Office simply discards such mail.
Jim Zinser, contributing editor of The Hot Box, an Internet home page, writes tongue-in-cheek that third-class mail is fun and profitable. He collects the little fabric samples that come in the mail and turns them into towels. With political campaign mailings, he creates billboards and posts them in his town square. When he gets landscape pictures from environmental groups, he makes posters for his bedroom.
"Look carefully," Mr. Zinser says. "The possibilities become endless."
For Australian immigrant Irlan Gordon, junk mail was an opportunity for self-improvement. "Although I spoke English," Mr. Gordon says, "not many people in San Francisco understood me." He practiced his American English by calling up the toll-free numbers on unsolicited mail and engaging in long conversations.
A happy side effect: The more you call, the less mail you get, Gordon says.
Taking your name off mailing lists is not a permanent solution, however. Mailers constantly compile lists by cross-referencing databases. Companies selling baby items, for instance, mail ads to new parents just days after their child's birth by legally accessing public records.
One way to lessen the burden of third-class mail is to be poor. The richer you are, the more mail you get. But the only way to completely avoid unwanted mail, a scribe once wrote, is to move into a packing crate under a freeway and stay there. Forever.