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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

America's Biggest Mail Junkies

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks to Will Nixon, Assistant Editor of E-Magazine, about his magazine's recent Junk Mail Hall of Shame. The list points the finger at a few companies who make sure that our mailboxes are never empty.


CURWOOD: Take a peek in your mailbox. What do you find, nearly every day you look? Almost inevitably you pull out things that you didn't ask for - catalogues, circulars, and pleas for money from almost every imaginable cause. Most people consider it junk mail, and whether or not you bother to open it, most of it ends up in the trash. All this bulk mailing is certainly adding bulk to landfills, says Will Nixon, who is the associate editor of E Magazine. Nixon and his office mates collected their junk mail for a while last summer, analyzed it ,and put together a Junk Mail Hall of Shame. Among their biggest offenders: Publishers Clearinghouse, and its perpetual packets of sweepstakes materials.

NIXON: That to me is a classic case of the way that mailers send out letters that are actually like home activity kits. You lick, you paste, you peel, the theory being that the longer it takes you to get through the letter, the more likely you are to pay attention to what's in it and actually do it and buy something. But all of that activity kit material contaminates these letters for recycling.

CURWOOD: Who's next?

NIXON: Victoria's Secret. It kept showing up, week after week after week, and one summer we had 8 copies of it. And for fun I looked up one item in the catalog, the Cullen Bra, and found that the price never changes. The cover changes but I don't think much else does.

CURWOOD: So you think that's Victoria's Secret, eh?

NIXON: Exactly.

CURWOOD: And next?

NIXON: We chose American Express, which is a credit card company. If you sign up for an American Express card, you pay for it in your mailbox with all kinds of mailings for products. All you wanted was the credit car; you wind up getting all kinds of mail.

CURWOOD: Now all of this isn't related to companies trying to sell something, there are also solicitations from environmental groups begging for money. Will Nixon, how much do environmental groups and other charities contribute to the problem of what you call "junk mail"?

NIXON: Alot. Non-profit organizations, including environmental groups who, in a way, are the most guilty here because it smacks of hypocrisy, rely a great deal on direct mail to raise money. Non-profit groups send out about 12 billion pieces of mail a year and they also have a cheaper mailing rate than for-profit companies. They're encouraged to do it.

CURWOOD: If you were in charge of changing how we handle so-called junk mail, what would you do?

NIXON: I would try to come up with methods for the polluter to pay. Right now, bulk mail is cheaper to mail than first-class mail. If you send out a letter first class and it's rejected or can't be delivered, it will be returned to you and that's included in the price of the first-class stamp. Bulk mail, if it's not delivered, it becomes the Post Office's responsibility to dispose of it somehow. That responsibility should go back to the company that mailed it so that then the public that doesn't want to receive a letter will send the letter back and the person who sent it initially actually has to pay for it to be returned and that would make them much quicker, I think, to stop sending out letters that aren't wanted.

CURWOOD: I wonder if people really do like this. I mean, how many letters, how many real letters, personal letters, do we get each week on average, Will Nixon?

NIXON: One point five. Depressing as it is.

CURWOOD: So that means all week long, all six days that a letter carrier could give you something, if there wasn't junk mail, the odds are only one of those days would give you a letter.

NIXON: That's true. That's true.

CURWOOD: So maybe all this junk mail makes us feel like we have a place on the planet, that somebody remembers we're out there.

NIXON: (Laughs) It's true.

CURWOOD: Writer Will Nixon is an associate editor of E Magazine. And by the way - the magazine sent us three press releases about their Junk Mail Hall of Shame.



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