Postal Service and Mailing Industry Mail-Related Recycling:

Accomplishments and Postal Opportunities--Interim Results

GAO-08-348R: Published: Dec 20, 2007. Publicly Released: Dec 20, 2007.

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Katherine A. Siggerud
(202) 512-6570


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

In fiscal year 2006, the United States Postal Service (USPS) was responsible for discarding about 6.1 billion pieces of undeliverable-as-addressed Standard Mail (a class of bulk advertising mail that includes catalogs and circulars). Some of this mail was recycled, but a large quantity of it was treated as waste and simply thrown away. Standard Mail is increasing in prominence due, in part, to its importance to businesses, nonprofits, and others as an effective way for (1) providing consumers with information on their products and services and (2) soliciting contributions from mail recipients. Some mail recipients, however, view Standard Mail as an annoyance that also poses privacy and environmental concerns. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Standard Mail accounted for about 5.8 million tons, or 2.4 percent, of municipal solid waste (otherwise known as trash or garbage) in 2005. Of this amount, 64 percent was placed in a landfill or incinerated, and 36 percent was recycled. The 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act required GAO to report--by December 20, 2007--on, among other matters, USPS mail-related recycling accomplishments and additional recycling opportunities. For mail-related recycling accomplishments (initiatives), we expanded our work to include the mailing industry and other stakeholders, as appropriate. For this report on our interim results, our objectives were as follows: (1) describe the recent initiatives of USPS, the mailing industry, and other stakeholders with respect to four mail-related recycling topics, and (2) convey stakeholder-identified opportunities for USPS to engage in, or encourage others to engage in, activities related to these topics, as well as factors to consider--such as mission compatibility, logistics, and cost--in deciding whether to adopt these opportunities.

On December 6 and 7, 2007, we briefed Congressional staff on the interim results of our analysis. This report formally conveys the information provided in those briefings. In summary, USPS, the mailing industry, and other stakeholders have undertaken numerous mail-related recycling initiatives, but the extent to which these initiatives have been adopted is unknown. USPS initiatives include (1) developing a policy and guidelines for a nationwide mail-related recycling program, (2) centralizing and attempting to expand its waste removal and recycling contracts nationwide, (3) partnering with New York City to create a pilot mail recycling program, (4) introducing new tools to reduce undeliverable-as-addressed mail volumes and costs, and (5) forming a "Greening the Mail Task Force" to, among other activities, promote increased mail recycling. For their part, the mailing industry and other stakeholders have initiated, among other activities, a collaborative campaign to encourage mailers to print recycling logos on magazines, envelopes, and other mailpieces; a "Magazine PAPER Project" to provide technical assistance and expertise to magazine companies interested in using environmentally responsible paper; and a "Catalog Choice" Web site to enable mail recipients to stop receiving unwanted catalogs. Additionally, the Direct Marketing Association, whose members generate the majority of Standard Mail volume, will require all its members to adopt certain environmentally friendly practices by June 2008. While numerous initiatives are under way, data are limited on the extent to which these initiatives have been adopted. Stakeholders identified opportunities for USPS to engage in, or encourage others to engage in, mail-related recycling. For example, according to stakeholders, USPS could (1) implement a "mail-back" program in locations with limited access to municipal paper recycling, (2) offer discounted postal rates for mailers that use recycled content and/or other "green" attributes in their mailpieces, and (3) take additional steps to educate mail recipients about the recyclability of mail. However, several factors--such as mission compatibility, logistics, and cost--would need to be considered in deciding whether USPS should adopt these or other opportunities.

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