Going online to cut junk mail, save forests

ON BLOGS

April 20, 2008|By Andrew Ratner

Sander DeVries and his brothers were complaining about junk mail a few years ago, but unlike complaints about the weather, they did decide to do something about it.

They began contacting several large direct-mail companies and catalog publishers to request they stop sending stuff to their homes. Their junk-mail flow slowed. They encouraged family members and friends to do the same, but most said it was too much hassle.

From that sentiment, the nonprofit 41pounds.org was born - named for average volume of junk mail every American receives in a year.

DeVries, 25, and his half-brothers, Tom Pfannes, 40, and Shane Pfannes, 39, launched the company in 2006.

For $41, they offered to do the heavy lifting of contacting about 30 direct-mail companies to get subscribers removed from their mailing lists. They also contact any specific companies that someone doesn't want to hear from again, such as financial services companies offering credit cards. They donate a third of the fee to environmental causes.

Anyone can accomplish the same thing themselves for free - there are various tips online. But 41pounds says it already has about 11,000 people signed up for their service, which is good for five years.

"We feel we're one of the little things people can do to `green' themselves," said DeVries, who lives outside Detroit.

When it comes to the environment, actions speak louder than words. And that's certainly true on the Internet.

Of the 100 most popular blogs, none is exclusively about the environment.

There are some well-known environmental blogs out there, such as Grist.org, Hugg.com and Treehugger.com. Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications bought Treehugger for $10 million last summer to augment its Planet Green TV channel, which is set to launch in June.

But politics, sports, entertainment and technology dominate the most popular blog topics - the stuff people love to argue about. Some folks do argue vigorously online against a cleaner Earth, but it's not a real popular position.

Even former Vice President Al Gore seems to have trouble blogging about the environment, and he's the ultimate eco-techno geek. "Al's Journal" at algore.com, has only a couple of posts a month - its last on April 8.

The Web by its very nature has green qualities. Obviously, it takes a lot of energy to run the millions of computers in homes and businesses, and the server farms that run all those Web sites being accessed. But a decade or so into the Internet era, computers are facilitating an awful lot of paperless communication and education. Many billions of dollars in e-commerce also proceed without the need to get into a vehicle.

A group of more than a dozen financial services companies, including Bank of America, CapitalOne, Citizens Bank and SunTrust Bank, recently launched an effort called PayItGreen.org to encourage more consumers to pay their bills online.

The group says the average American household receives about 19 paper bills and statements a month, and makes about 7 payments by mail.

It makes a forceful argument that by switching to electronic bills, statements, and payments, households could help save 6.6 pounds of paper per year. If 2 percent of American households made the switch, it would preserve 1,240 acres of forest, avoid creating enough wastewater to fill 218 Olympic-sized swimming pools and avoid using enough gasoline to drive between New York and Los Angeles 92 times, it said.

Consumers may be reluctant to do so because they like to "float" checks in the mail, fear losing track of their statements if they have to retrieve them online, or are anxious about security, especially with all the fraudulent spammers posing as legitimate banks.

Len Heckwolf, a Bank of America executive in Baltimore and a board member of industry group NACHA - The Electronic Payments Association, said people have been shifting toward more electronic transactions over cash or checks for the past decade anyway, but the industry hoped the "green" message might propel paperless banking even faster.

While acknowleging that the group has a vested interest in getting consumers to switch since it cuts the cost of mailing statements and speeds the transmission of payments, he said the environmental benefits present a "win-win."

"The group has always had this green focus but ... we probably hadn't told the story as well as we're telling it now," Heckwolf said of electronic personal banking. "We were green before green was cool."

Convincing e-converts may be easier with an increasingly tech-oriented society. Use of checks is already slowing by about 6 percent to 9 percent a year.

"A colleague of mine used to say, `My father will never use an ATM and my son will never write a check,'" he said. "The comfort level is increasing. It benefits [the consumer], and it benefits us."

The 41pounds folks use a similarly evocative pitch, equating a year's worth of reduced junk mail to saving 1.7 trees. A weird YouTube video on their blog titled "The Treeless Squirrel" of someone in a giant rodent costume in search of a new home is another example that this isn't your father's ecology message.

The omnipresence of junk mail was driven home to them not long after they started 41pounds.org.

They had to make calls to get rid of all the junk mail the new business started to get, too.

andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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