Week of 11/20/2005

Dear EarthTalk: How can I reduce the amount of unwanted mail that I receive?

—Jennifer Pearle, Brattleboro, VT

According to the Center for a New American Dream (CNAD), a Maryland-based non-profit that works to help people consume responsibly, some 5.6 million tons of catalogs and other direct mail solicitations clog U.S. landfills every year. Meanwhile, the average household may receive as many as 1,000 unwanted pieces of mail annually, of which only about 22 percent ever get recycled. Further, says CNAD, each American will spend about eight months of his or her life opening unwanted mail! So, reducing the volume of mail you receive will not only saves trees, energy and landfill space—it will also save you time.

So how do you reduce the mountain of "junk" mail that fills your mailbox? Registering with the Mail Preference Service of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) can help, but it is no guarantee. DMA includes your name in a database, but then it is voluntary on the part of marketers as to whether or not they consult it to remove "Do Not Mail" names before doing their mailings. Indeed, most pieces of mail you receive are from firms who rented your name from another firm, so they can usually only comply with "take me off your list" requests by using this service. Fortunately, most large mailers do use the service routinely because they know that there is nothing to gain by mailing to people who don’t want mail.

Another way to lighten your mailbox is to go to OptOutPreScreen.com, where you can get yourself off of lists that credit card and insurance companies use to solicit your business. It’s a centralized website run by the country’s four major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, Innovis and TransUnion. These are the companies that businesses check with before accepting your credit card. They are also the largest sources of names and addresses used by credit card companies to trawl for new customers via mass mailings. Luckily, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that these bureaus delete any person’s name and address from rented lists if they so request.

In addition to registering with these services, you should notify in writing all of the companies you do business with that you wish to be placed on their "do not promote" or "in-house suppress" file. Do it the very first time you do business with them if you can, but it can be done at any time. These should include your credit card companies, magazines you receive, catalogs you buy from, and any others that you do business with by mail.

And you can keep such companies and organizations honest by cleverly altering your name so as to track where mail may be obtaining it. If your name is John Smith, for example, subscribe to Rolling Stone magazine as "John R.S. Smith" (in conjunction with telling them not to rent your name). Then if you later receive mail from another company or organization addressed to "John R.S. Smith," you"ll know precisely how they found you and you can take action accordingly.

The website JunkBusters.com provides further guidelines for reducing mail and other intrusive marketing.

CONTACTS: DMA’s Mail Preference Service, www.dmaconsumers.org/consumerassistance.html; OptOutPreScreen.com, www.optoutprescreen.com; JunkBusters.com, www.junkbusters.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Is there a legal definition of "biodegradable" that companies have to meet in order to so-label their products?

—Bill Van Leeuwen, Hinsdale, IL

There is no legal definition of "biodegradable," but the American Society for Testing and Materials defines the term as "a degradation caused by biological activity, especially by enzymatic action, leading to a significant change in the chemical structure of the material." The European Union deems a material biodegradable if it will break down into mostly water, carbon dioxide and organic matter within six months.

But despite such precise-sounding definitions, the term "biodegradable" has been applied to a wide range of products—even those that might take centuries to decompose, or those that break down into harmful environmental toxins.

According to the Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine), there are no specific standards for the "biodegradable" claim, and no official organization exists to verify the use of the claim. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S., however, has issued some general guidelines on what types of products qualify as legitimately biodegradable, and has even sued companies for unsubstantiated, misleading and/or deceptive use of the term on product labels.

According to the FTC, only products that contain materials that "break down and decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short amount of time when they are exposed to air, moisture and bacteria or other organisms" should be marketed as "biodegradable." But the FTC acknowledges that even products appropriately labeled as biodegradable may not break down easily if they are buried under a landfill or are otherwise not exposed to sunlight, air and moisture, the key agents of biodegradation.

Of course, just because a product or ingredient is biodegradable does not mean it is healthy or safe for people or the environment. For example, the toxic pesticide DDT biodegrades to the compounds DDD and DDE, both of which are more toxic and more dangerous than the original DDT itself.

Consumers with questions about what qualifies a given product to carry a biodegradable label should contact the manufacturer directly. The Consumers Union maintains that "if a manufacturer has solid scientific evidence demonstrating that the product will break down and decompose into by-products found in nature in a short period of time, then claiming that it is "biodegradable" is not deceptive." If you encounter a manufacturer that appears to be stretching the definition, file a complaint with the FTC.

CONTACTS: American Society for Testing and Materials, www.astm.org; Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels, www.eco-labels.org; FTC Environmental Claims Guide, www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides92.htm#G2.