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The Forest in My Mail Box:

Last week I read that every American eats an average of 12 pounds of chocolate every year. While that amount of candy is unappetizing, except to candy manufacturers, the number demonstrates that you can effectively gauge your own level of consumption by measuring what goes in. Although, I’ve been in debates about alcoholism that go unresolved because somebody argues that a beer pitcher isn’t an actual unit of measurement.

Imagine a service that puts you in touch with your inner consumer by returning to you everything that you’ve consumed. Once a year, on “This Is You Day,” all the air, water and other resources you’ve consumed or dirtied or wasted the previous year would be returned in some form. For example, one year of your car’s exhaust is pumped into your living room. Certainly an arrangement like this would heighten everyone’s respect for sewage treatment facilities.

About two years ago I began hoarding some of my junk mail, and not because I’m nuts and I live with 200 cats. Specifically, I set aside every environmental action group appeal except for those I responded to, and I saved credit card come-ons. I’ll tip my reasons in a moment, but, as you might imagine, hanging on to your junk mail gives you a clear picture of exactly how much waste is associated with the practice of mailing envelopes full of paper to our homes in hopes of eliciting a response in the form of money.

Sometimes they start out by sending you money. UNICEF has taken to gluing a real nickel onto their mail appeals in an attempt to guilt the recipient into sending back the nickel and a check. What kind of bastard would pocket a nickel sent by the children aided by UNICEF? I’ll give you a hint: It’s the same guy that would return those shiny address stickers sent by nonprofits by stuffing them into the pre-paid enclosed envelope, along with a note that begins: “There has to be a better way than this…”

Gifts of guilt are one thing, but I find it worse than ironic when environmental organizations send me a junk mail appeal that arrives in a large envelope and includes upwards of six individual paper elements printed in expensive full color, along with address labels featuring endangered species. I don’t want to embarrass these groups by name, but one in particular keeps sending me large white envelopes full of white paper forms that I should fill out to register my environmental concerns. Environmental Concern Number One: Large white envelopes full of paper!

The harvesting of trees to make paper can reasonably be assumed to involve a renewable resource. However, the manufacturing of paper has historically involved the pollution of water from processing bleaches and chemicals. I’m not sure how “green” printing processes are, but I’m pretty sure loading tons of junk mail into trucks and shipping it to all four corners of the country involves some level of energy consumption.

Options? Clearly there’s some efficacy in the fund-raising power of junk mail, because we must assume that our most noble organizations are monitoring their rates of return and not just throwing their nickels into the mailbox. But there are ways to bring down the volume. TreePeople, the organization that plants trees to create fresh air in Los Angeles, regularly sends me a small appeal no larger than a thank you card. There is no color brochure or set of gift stamps.

A number of other organizations call by phone, then mail me a paper-efficient donation envelope (avoiding surrendering credit card numbers) that involves no waste in peripheral materials. I’m not always crazy about the phone calls, but I respect that people are getting something done out there without wasting so much paper. This type of efficiency impacts the donating we do in our house.

It’s my plan to recycle the junk mail I’ve been saving into two art projects. The first would be a wall-size credit card made of papier mâché generated by grinding up the credit card appeals sent to my home. The “card” would have a running total tracking our national credit card debt. The second piece involves all the environmental action appeals I’ve been saving. At a certain point, I should have enough to build a tree.

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