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To avoid telephone books and other unwanted marketing materials from cluttering their doorsteps and mailboxes, Chicago residents can log onto www.catalogchoice.org to stop receiving such items. Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel/iStockphoto.com
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Chuck Teller, executive director of Catalog Choice, says his service helps ease the burden on solid waste departments — and the environment — by letting people opt out of receiving unwanted junk mail. Photo: Catalog Choice

By Jenni Spinner

According to the U.S. EPA, more than 2 million tons of unsolicited flyers, catalogs, phone books, and other marketing materials are tossed in U.S. landfills every year. Collecting and disposing of that much junk mail hurts the environment, and drains public works budgets.

A new Berkeley, Calif.-based organization frees up precious landfill space by preventing junk mail from ending up in homes in the first place. Catalog Choice lets people opt out of direct-mail pieces, retail catalogs, phone books, and other marketing materials that they don't want.

“We make it easy for consumers to manage how companies use their name and address for direct marketing,” says Chuck Teller, executive director of Catalog Choice.

The program was born when a board member of the Overbrook Foundation — a group that funds projects supporting environmental and human rights causes — looked at her mailbox, stuffed with unsolicited mail, and wondered what could be done to stop the onslaught. After attaining funding from Overbrook, other philanthropic groups, and private donations, the mail preference service launched its mission to reduce junk-mail waste in 2007.

The grant-supported nonprofit works at no cost to citizens or municipalities. To initiate the program, municipalities simply sign up for the service; each participant is given a localized page on the Web site (www.catalogchoice.org). They then promote the service to citizens, who sign up on the site.

Municipalities receive detailed reporting on local participation by ZIP code, solid waste diversion, and environmental benefits. According to Teller, with an annual collection and landfill cost of unwanted mailings and phone books estimated at up to $10/ household, the cost savings for cities can be significant. Participating cities and counties include Chicago; Tompkins County (Ithaca), N.Y.; Marion County (Salem), Ore.; Kansas City; Seattle; and Berkeley.

The organization currently has 1.3 million consumers participating in the service, and it continues to grow both in scope and service (the group is adding telephone options and a smartphone application to its arsenal of tools). City officials view the service as a method to help ease the burden on budgets, and to meet solid waste reduction needs.

“We've identified waste reduction as a crucial strategy to meet the goals of our Chicago Climate Action Plan,” says Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Chicago Department of Environment commissioner. “The Mail Preference Service will cut paper waste at the source, and offers an ease of use that we know citizens and businesses will appreciate.”

In addition to benefiting consumers and cities, Teller says the 4,000 companies listed with Catalog Choice also profit from the service. It enables the firms to fine-tune their mailing lists, ensure marketing materials only go to interested parties, and cut wasted funds and materials consumed in creating promotional items that won't get noticed anyway.

“Our service is about consumer choice and efficiency,” says Teller. “If a consumer doesn't want to get a phone book or direct mail, they have the right to make that choice. It's better for business to not deliver unwanted material to consumers.

“Phone book publishers will tell you that they don't want to deliver a phone book to someone who doesn't want one. This is a win-win service that enables both companies and communities to be more efficient and cut waste on all ends.”

— Jenni Spinner (jspinwrites@gmail.com) is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a former editor of PUBLIC WORKS.