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

Catalogue Avalanche

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Janet Reynolds tells us how to put a stop to all those unwanted post-holiday catalogues.


CURWOOD: As we emerge from the holiday season, commentator Janet Reynolds says she's glad for the convenience of shopping at home with catalogs, but she dreads what's next, now that she's on all those mailing lists.

REYNOLDS: First, let's get one thing straight -- I do not hate catalogs. I buy from them, I swap 'em, they're fixtures in all our bathrooms. But hey, even I have a threshold, and at thirty catalogs in just one recent week, I've reached it. And I'm just one member of one household. A call to Direct Marketing Association confirms my suspicions. Last year, 13.1 billion catalogs were mailed to Americans. See, these companies don't just send out four seasonal catalogs a year with maybe a couple of sale flyers in between. Many of these companies send out dozens of catalogs. Why? Because in the pseudo-science of Catalog 101, more catalogs mean more sales mean more profits. It also means they can sell or trade your name to other companies who then send you more catalogs.

Unfortunately, what's good for the corporate pocketbook isn't so great for the environment. Producing those catalogs consumes huge amounts of water and electricity and produces tons of sulfur dioxide and dioxin waste. Finally, there's the minor detail of catalogs' very long landfill life, or what happens when they're burned. The glossy paper they're printed on and the multi-color photographs that entice customers to cough up the cash make recycling them expensive. Most recycling centers don't do it, and when they do, most companies aren't particularly interested in decreasing their profits to pay for it.

Not surprisingly, company spokespeople prefer to emphasize the positive sides of armchair shopping. Fewer gallons of gas, less foreign oil, fewer tons of car exhaust in the air. Besides, what's a few catalogs compared to storing toxic waste or holes in the ozone layer? Good point, but working under the theory that every little bit helps, there are changes that can and should be made. Right now catalog companies get all sorts of perks: discount bulk mail rates, few -- if any -- sales tax obligations, and no financial stake in getting rid of discards. It's time, then, for some laws requiring catalog companies to use recycled paper and to help finance catalog collection and recycling. In the meantime, we consumers can take some steps.

Most companies will take you off the regular mailing list and send you only certain catalogs if you ask them. They'll also remove your name from the list they rent or trade with other companies. You can also register with the Direct Mail Association's Mail Preference Service and have your name removed from lists sent to subscribers for five years. Call your local library for the address.

Finally, if you're the activist sort you can also write the company and say something like, "Hey! What's wrong with you guys? Why don't you use recycled paper?" Remember, money talks. If companies are convinced recycled paper won't translate into fewer sales of hunting boots or slinky negligees, they just might change their paper stock.

CURWOOD: Janet Reynolds is a freelance writer and a commentator for Living on Earth.
She comes to us from Connecticut Public Radio.



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