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Subsidizing Junk Mail in the Great Recession

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If you think receiving your daily dose of junk mail just kills trees, clogs landfills, exacerbates climate change, is an invitation to identity theft, and is incredibly annoying, well, it actually gets worse: you are also paying for the privilege of receiving it.

For example, in Seattle, the taxpayer bill for disposing of a year's worth of junk mail comes to around $400,000. On a state level the number is far greater. Nationwide, the costs are well into eight figures. It is one thing to scrimp and save to try to keep our schools functioning, our firefighters and police on the job, our social services intact, but should we really be paying for junk mail to be disposed of when we never asked for it and can't make it stop? Of course not - especially now that we are in the midst of the Great Recession.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution calling on the Washington state legislature to create a Do Not Mail Registry. This is a common sense measure backed by overwhelming popular distaste for junk mail. And it's a good way to start rolling back both a subsidized mailing service (the USPS charges us 44 cents to send a real letter, while direct mailers pay as little as 14 cents to send us junk) and a taxpayer-subsidized junk mail disposal service.

Nearly half of all junk mail isn't even opened. Richard Conlin, Seattle City Council President: "From the city's perspective, it becomes garbage and we have to pay for disposing of it. And even if it's recycled, recycling still isn't as good as not having it in the waste stream at all."

The public's dislike for junk mail has hovered between 80% and 90% since the early 1990s, and a 2007 Zogby poll reported that 89% of Americans support the creation of a national Do Not Mail Registry. That citizens should have the right to stop junk mail may be one of the few things left about which almost all of us can agree.

Yet the junk mail industry and postal unions have used their lobbying might to defeat the will of the people in more than 20 states where Do Not Mail bills had been introduced. They insist that we do not deserve the choice to opt out of something we don't like and don't want. Put another way, the junk mail industry believes that we should have no choice on the mail that enters our homes, and that our cities must haul away. This is as wrong as it is financially nonsensical.

And make no mistake-- this junk mail arrives with a lengthy trail of destruction behind it. Thirty percent of all the mail delivered in the world is US junk mail. To send Americans 100 billion pieces of junk mail every year, 100 million trees are logged (junk mailers are not big users of recycled paper). The total greenhouse gas emissions generated by junk mail's logging, production, delivery, and disposal are equivalent to the emissions of more than 9 million cars.

What Do Not Mail's suspiciously few opponents fear is the truth: Do Not Mail makes perfect sense in the 21st Century and US citizens should not be subsidizing junk mail.

So here's to Seattle for actually representing the will of the people, and not caving to pressure from industry and USPS lobbies. Less than a year ago San Francisco called on the State of California to create a Do Not Mail registry. Other cities are considering making the same call for a state-based tool to stop the annoying and expensive cycle of junk mail.

Which state will be the first to take a stand against subsidized predatory capitalism and stand up for citizen's rights? Washington? California? NY? Florida? It will happen if only because it would do so much good for so many. A Do Not Mail Registry would give you the choice to opt out of wasteful and unwanted junk mail. Or to keep getting it if you so choose (hey, whatever works for you). It would be a tool to protect your loved ones from mail fraud and identity theft. A no-brainer boon to our environment. A wise step to combat deforestation and climate change. A wake-up call to the USPS (they work for you, not for giant corporations). As well as send a strong message to advertisers that many of you prefer to be reached in ways other than junk mail invading your home, thank you very much.

This isn't the biggest decision a city council has made recently. They are all struggling with huge problems during this recession. And that's exactly why more cities should take a harder look at the many ways - such as the disposal of junk mail- that they subsidize big companies at the expense of ordinary citizens. It's time to make junk mail history.