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EARTHWATCH

Staunch the Flood of Junk in Your Mailbox : The stuff is being dumped into landfills at an alarming rate, so you should be selective about the catalogues you want to receive.

March 09, 1995|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Times last week ran a cartoon--in the slot formerly occupied by Gary Larson's "Far Side"--showing two men looking at a pot-bellied stove. "So far we've been able to heat the entire house using nothing but junk mail," says one to the other.

I didn't find the cartoon particularly funny: If used as fuel, most types of junk mail would pollute the air because of all the heavy metals in the ink. But it got me thinking anew about junk mail and the environment.

For one thing, there's no need to even think about incinerating the stuff--in our county at least--because it's now being picked up for recycling by local trash haulers. Just remember to bag it separately from the newspapers.

Then I remembered that I wasn't getting any more junk mail with my daily postal delivery. My neighbors still are--I can see, by looking around the neighborhood, that their mail boxes are crammed. But I don't even get a Patagonia catalogue.

About two years ago, I followed my own Earthwatch advice about fighting junk mail and had mine stopped. I was upset that the forests of America's Southeast and Northwest were being clear-cut just so anonymous correspondents could annoy me with urgent solicitations to buy/subscribe/wear/eat/act now.

I wrote to the Direct Marketing Assn. and asked to have my name removed from its members' mailing lists. It worked--after a couple of repeat calls.

But now that I've begun again to think about this kind of mail. I may be missing something. Now all I get are utility bills. I sort of continue to want to hear what Nader, Cousteau and the gang at Patagonia are up to. Since recycled paper is coming into wider use, these people have begun using it. for announcements and such. Is there a way I could reinstate myself on the "good" mailing lists without being stuck back on the other kinds?

I called a few people, starting with Patagonia, then the Audubon Society and even the Direct Mail Assn. The way it works nowadays is that you can check off a particular box: "Please don't rent my name" or "No promotional mail" or "If you prefer not to receive offers from selected organizations, please check." Thus you cut down on clutter at your home and diminish a flow of paper to the landfill.

This winter, Patagonia embarked on an almost-obsessive junk-mail reduction campaign of its own. According to John Travers, direct-mail manager, the Ventura outdoor clothing company is not sending its catalogue to anyone who doesn't ask for it--or order regularly. You can get it by responding to ads in Rolling Stone or similar magazines. Or you can buy it for $5 at a newsstand. But Patagonia is not renting lists and flooding our mailboxes with solicitations.

Patagonia has pared its mailings to 1.5 million--the faithful who henceforth will get only a couple of updates a year--meaning 90% less paper, all made from recycled fiber. In contrast, the industrywide average for a company that size is a list of 5 million people mailed a couple of catalogues a month, whether they wanted them or not.

"I think we're trying to create a trend," Travers said about his company's version of junk-mail birth control. So far, only one other mail order firm, Speigel, is doing anything like this.

The U.S. Postal Service reports that direct mailers put 65 billion pieces of third-class mail in our mailboxes last year. Of these, about 10 billion were discarded unopened and most of it was dumped into landfills, except for the 3 billion that were recycled--partly by us good folks in Ventura County.

The best way to deal with the junk-mail flood is to staunch it before it reaches your house. Study the mailings from the companies and groups you're getting mail from--and want to keep in touch with--and check off the box that tells them not to rent out your name. If that's too much work, just write the Direct Marketing Assn.'s Mail Preference Service (P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, N.Y. 11735-9008) and tell it to purge its members' files of your name.

Then, figure another way to heat your house. Solar, maybe.

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