U.S. Postal Service:

Mail-Related Recycling Initiatives and Possible Opportunities for Improvement

GAO-08-599: Published: Jun 3, 2008. Publicly Released: Jun 3, 2008.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Katherine A. Siggerud
(202) 512-3000
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) discarded about 317,000 tons of undeliverable-as-addressed advertising mail. Such mail can be disposed of using incineration, landfills or through other methods. USPS recently committed to minimizing the agency's impact on every aspect of the environment. Recycling undeliverable advertising mail can help USPS achieve this commitment, while generating revenue and reducing its costs and financial pressures. In response to the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, this report addresses (1) recent mail-related recycling accomplishments (initiatives) undertaken by USPS, the mailing industry, and others and (2) additional recycling opportunities that USPS could choose to engage in, or influence mailers to undertake. To conduct this study, GAO analyzed relevant data and documents, visited USPS and other facilities, and interviewed about 40 stakeholders.

USPS and the mailing industry have undertaken numerous initiatives to increase (1) the recycling of mail-related materials and (2) the amount of mail with environmentally preferable attributes, such as mail that uses recycled paper. USPS has five key recycling-related initiatives underway. For example, USPS recently established annual goals to increase its revenue from mail-related recycling from $7.5 million to $40 million from fiscal years 2007 to 2010. However, by excluding savings that result from lower waste disposal costs--which accompany increased recycling--the goals do not reflect the full financial benefit attributable to mail-related recycling. USPS also has launched a pilot recycling program in New York City, but it is not known whether USPS will require its managers elsewhere to adopt applicable "lessons learned" from the pilot. Representatives of the mailing industry and other stakeholders also have undertaken a wide range of initiatives to, among other actions, increase the amount of mail that is recycled. For example, three mailing industry associations recently introduced separate awareness campaigns to encourage mail recipients to recycle their catalogs, envelopes, and magazines. In addition, the Direct Marketing Association--whose members collectively send about 80 percent of all Standard Mail--is undertaking several initiatives, including an effort to encourage mailers to use environmentally preferable mail attributes. USPS, mailing industry, and other stakeholders GAO interviewed identified five opportunities that USPS could choose to undertake to increase its recycling of mail-related materials and to encourage mailers to increase the amount of mail with environmentally preferable attributes. The five opportunities stakeholders cited most frequently were for USPS to: (1) implement a program for recognizing mail-related recycling achievements; (2) increase awareness among mail recipients that mail is recyclable and encourage them to recycle their mail; (3) collaborate with parties interested in increasing the supply of paper fiber available for recycling; (4) establish a special, discounted postal rate--or "Green Rate"--as a means of inducing mailers to adopt environmentally preferable attributes; and, (5) initiate a "mail take-back" program in locations that do not have access to municipal paper recycling. Each of these opportunities appears to be consistent with the agency's long-standing commitment to environmental leadership and the Postmaster General's recent commitments to minimize the agency's impact on every aspect of the environment and to act as a positive environmental influence in U.S. communities. Based on GAO's analysis, however, USPS would need to assess several factors including cost, feasibility (including logistical considerations), and mission compatibility in deciding whether to adopt these opportunities. For example, depending on the magnitude of variance between the expected costs and revenues, USPS may find implementing one or more of the opportunities unacceptable. This is, in part, because USPS faces multiple short- and long-term pressures in improving its operational efficiency, increasing its revenues, and controlling its costs--some of which are increasing faster than the overall inflation rate.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To increase USPS' recycling of mail-related materials and increase the amount of mail with environmentally preferable attributes, the Postmaster General should direct the Manager of Environmental Policy and Programs and other parties, as appropriate, to, after completion of the New York City pilot, require facility managers at other facilities to adopt lessons learned, where applicable, feasible, mission compatible, and appropriate in view of cost and other considerations.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USPS took a number of actions to implement lessons learned following its New York City recycling pilot. For example, USPS directed numerous districts to complete "zero waste" studies documenting how the districts' adoption of lessons learned from the New York City pilot had increased the districts' revenues or reduced their costs. In 2010, USPS completed 33 of these case studies and, according to USPS, it expects to achieve $10 million in cost reductions from these initiatives over three years. In addition, it created a position--the Manager of Resource Conservation within the previous Office of Environmental Policy and Programs to help implement lessons learned from the pilot as well as other recycling-related best practices identified elsewhere within USPS. USPS also informed us that it disseminated best practices related to recycling through, among other methods, monthly newsletters to all USPS staff. However, according to USPS, each of these efforts has been suspended due to the urgent need to redirect its limited personnel resources toward urgent environmental compliance initiatives which, if not successfully resolved, could cost the agency over $33 million. The monthly recycling newsletter was also suspended for the same reason, according to USPS. While setbacks have occurred, USPS informed us that it continues to advance its overall recycling initiatives through a variety of methods, including meetings with field managers to discuss recycling opportunities and the status and performance of district recycling programs. In addition, USPS told us that it anticipates that the lessons learned from the 33 "zero waste" case studies will be shared through its planned deployment of Green Teams that focus on district level recycling programs. As a result of these efforts, USPS continues to minimize its impact on the environment.

    Recommendation: To increase USPS' recycling of mail-related materials and increase the amount of mail with environmentally preferable attributes, the Postmaster General should direct the Manager of Environmental Policy and Programs and other parties, as appropriate, to ensure that the mail-related recycling plan it develops specifies, among other matters, how USPS will (1) measure progress toward its goals and (2) ensure that the data it uses for these measurements are accurate, reliable, and collected using a consistent method.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: USPS has not developed a comprehensive mail-related recycling plan. The agency moved the responsibility for the plan within its Corporate Sustainability Office. According to USPS officials, the data needed to develop such a plan are contained in a variety of documents developed under its former Environmental Policy and Programs function. We reviewed these documents, and while USPS has shown progress towards increased recycling and tracking of such accomplishments, we were unable to locate any documentation demonstrating how USPS will measure progress towards increased recycling goals across the agency or how it will ensure that its data are accurate, reliable, and collected consistently. Consequently, it appears that USPS will not develop a distinct recycling plan.

    Recommendation: To increase USPS' recycling of mail-related materials and increase the amount of mail with environmentally preferable attributes, the Postmaster General should direct the Manager of Environmental Policy and Programs and other parties, as appropriate, to revise the agency's recycling goals to include savings from lower waste disposal costs or adopt additional goals that would reflect the full financial benefit attributable to mail-related recycling.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Although USPS has taken action to identify the potential for increasing its recycling revenue, the agency does not intend to revise its recycling goals as we recommended. In addition, USPS informed us that it is no longer realistic to commit to a specific cost reduction goal due, in part, to economic and organizational changes resulting from the agency's dire financial situation. USPS explained that in fiscal year 2010 it initiated 33 "zero waste" business case studies with over $9 million in potential revenue and solid waste cost reductions. However, USPS subsequently reduced staffing for this effort from 33 to 12. Thus, while USPS officials believe it may be possible to achieve $10 million in cost reductions over three years, it cannot commit to a specific cost reduction goal.

    Recommendation: To increase USPS' recycling of mail-related materials and increase the amount of mail with environmentally preferable attributes, the Postmaster General should direct the Manager of Environmental Policy and Programs and other parties, as appropriate, to assess the environmental benefits of the mail-related recycling opportunities identified by stakeholders in this report, and any others, and adopt those opportunities that are feasible, compatible with USPS' mission, and appropriate in view of cost and other considerations.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, GAO reported on five stakeholder-identified opportunities that USPS could choose to undertake to increase its recycling of mail-related materials and to encourage mailers to increase the amount of mail with environmentally preferable attributes. The five opportunities were for USPS to (1) implement a program for recognizing mail-related recycling achievements; (2) increase awareness among mail recipients that mail is recyclable and encourage them to recycle their mail through, among other actions, collaboration with mailing industry and other stakeholder initiatives; (3) collaborate with parties interested in increasing the supply of paper fiber available for recycling; (4) establish a special, discounted postal rate (or Green Rate) as a means of inducing mailers to adopt one or more environmentally preferable attributes in their mail pieces; and (5) initiate a mail take-back program in locations that do not have access to municipal paper recycling. Each of these opportunities appears to be consistent with (1) the agency's long-standing commitment to environmental leadership and (2) the Postmaster General's recent commitments to both minimize the agency's impact on every aspect of the environment and to act as a positive environmental influence in U.S. communities. GAO recommended that USPS assess the environmental benefits of the mail-related recycling opportunities identified by stakeholders in this report, and any others, and adopt those opportunities that are feasible, compatible with USPS' mission, and appropriate in view of cost and other considerations. In response to GAO's recommendation, beginning in 2010 USPS assessed the environmental benefits of the five recycling opportunities and decided to implement two of these opportunities. Specifically, USPS implemented a program for recognizing mail-related achievements through partnership with Green Seals that has led to a third party certification program for greening the mail and USPS increased the public's awareness that mail is recyclable by expanding its program for discarding lobby mail to postal facilities located within or near 114 parks managed by the National Park Service. As a result of these actions, USPS will enhance its environmental reputation in U.S. communities. USPS did not implement the remaining three recycling opportunities due to their infeasibility and lack of cost effectiveness.

    Jul 29, 2014

    Jul 22, 2014

    Jun 17, 2014

    Jun 11, 2014

    Jun 10, 2014

    May 28, 2014

    May 21, 2014

    May 12, 2014

    May 7, 2014

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here