Next time you're at the post office, park yourself in the lobby for a few minutes and watch. You'll see a flow of people unlocking their P.O. boxes, pulling out a bundle of mail and then crossing the linoleum to toss half of the bundle into a trash bin. This goes on minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, in nearly every American city and town.
Now consider the Sunday newspaper, if you still get one. It might start out an inch and a half thick. Do you haul it in from the box, drop it on the table with a loud slap and prune out an inch of ads, flyers and supposedly special sections to get to the parts you want to read? And does that culled-out bundle go straight to a trashcan or recycling box, mostly or completely unread? If you're like most people, you retain active possession of the bundle for perhaps 10 times longer than you hold on to your junk mail at the post office. But it all ends up basically in the same place.
Think about the life cycle of all this material. Softwood trees like poplar are germinated from seed and then planted symmetrically in carefully prepared plantation soil. For 10-20 years, they're watered and fed petrochemicals until they reach a diameter of 12-16 inches. A 60 Minutes documentary some time back reported that 17,000 of these logs are needed to produce the Sunday edition of The New York Times. Then they're cut like cornstalks and trucked to pulp mills to be chipped, stewed and infused with more petrochemicals and, when you want a whiter white, the chlorine that produces a big slice of the dioxin contamination around the world. More cooking, pressing, stretching and cutting before another voyage, usually by diesel 18-wheeler, to paper brokers and printing plants across the country. Then another trip or two through high-tech, high-energy machinery for printing and folding into envelopes, newspaper and magazines, followed by many more oil-fueled road or air miles to reach your mail or newspaper box.
Then it's up to you to transport the product from incoming box to outgoing trash. After years of practice, you can do it in seconds, unless you stop to read this stuff, which, after years of drivel, you rarely do. The trash goes to the curb to be picked up by yet more trucks, then mostly (in spite of the ebb-and-flow of recycled paper markets) to landfills, where it's buried beneath enough material to cut off the oxygen that would otherwise dissolve it.
Twenty years growing in a tree plantation. A month or two in processing plants. Five seconds in your hand at the post office, or maybe a few days lying around your house unread. Tens or hundreds of thousands of years clogging up a landfill. And rivers of oil and toxic chemicals to move the material from one step to the next.
This easily qualifies as what a person might call a Stupid Habit That Isn't Part Of Our Future. A good way to identify a Stupid Habit that won't survive is to imagine what a visiting researcher from Mars -- an interplanetary anthropologist come here to figure out the human species -- would think about it. If Martians have a jaw, and something you say makes it drop in astonishment, and, if after carefully listening to your explanation, the Martian researcher says: "You people do what?" you probably have a Stupid Habit That Isn't Part of our Future.
Why has this particular one gone on so long? Probably because -- within the economic framework we've come to accept -- it pencils out, or used to, before this deepening recession. Remember that most direct-mail marketers are thrilled with a response rate of 1 percent. Given that 95 percent of their fiber tonnage travels straight from tree plantation to landfill uninterrupted by the human eyeball, we have a strange definition of "success." If you were a Martian, don't think you might find the whole system baffling?
The U.S. Postal Service has announced that it's losing more money every month, partly because struggling companies are cutting back on promotional mailings. Painful layoffs may lie ahead for postal workers.
My two questions are these: Is there a painless alternative to a Stupid Habit? And how bad does junk mail have to get before we give up torturing the planet in this way?
Jeff Golden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Ashland, Oregon and is the author of As If We Were Grownups.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.