Skye Neville loves reading comic books, but the 11 year old furrows her brows when she holds up her favorite to the Zoom camera from her village in Wales. “Look!” she urges. “This magazine came double wrapped in plastic, and this one had free plastic toys like this ugly red frog. To send out plastic junk in this time and age is inexcusable.”
Last winter, she decided to do something about it — she wrote a letter to the publisher of Horrible Histories. “I laid out various options, for instance, covering the magazine in a layer made from potato starch.” When the publisher tried to brush her off with the response that kids love free plastic toys, she started an online petition that garnered more than 65,000 signatures. Waitrose, one of the U.K.’s largest supermarket chains, stopped carrying the magazine as a result. Even the Welsh parliament took up her request and is now considering a ban on plastic wrappings and gifts. “Of course, I could simply unsubscribe from the magazine,” Neville acknowledges, “but I love to read. I just don’t want to receive all this unwanted plastic.”
The issue hits close to home for her. Neville’s father is the local mailman in Fairbourne, their house is only 100 meters from the shore where she cleans up plastic trash almost daily, and Fairbourne is one of the first British villages that will be swamped by rising sea levels — scientists estimate that houses there will probably be underwater in 20 years, so the dangers of climate change are top of mind.
But one doesn’t need to live in a doomed village to be concerned about wasting resources. When British media picked up Neville’s petition and polled its readership, 80 percent of children opposed plastic gifts, and only 20 percent approved. “This shows that the publishers are simply lying when they say consumers want this,” she says.
The essential question is this: Can consumers decide what ends up in their mailbox? The answer depends on where you live. Several countries, including the U.K. and Germany, are currently preparing legal drafts to limit or ban plastic wrapping for magazines. Beyond that, many European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, have opt-out systems: A sticker on your mailbox signals to postal carriers that they are not allowed to deliver bulk mail.
It’s a good start, but fewer than 27 percent of Germans use the opt-out sticker, even though, when asked, 83 percent of Germans say they don’t want to receive junk. “People shouldn’t have to go out of their way to not receive something they don’t want in the first place,” says Sebastian Sielmann, the initiator of the anti-junk mail German petition “Last Advertisement.”
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To rectify this, in 2018, Amsterdam pioneered an opt-in system, and several other Dutch cities soon followed suit. Instead of opting out of each individual mailer as you have to in the U.S., Holland reversed the system. In order to receive junk mail, you need to put a “Ja-Ja”-sticker on your mailbox that declares that you want it.
Only 23 percent of Dutch households opt in. (Those who do often say they value the coupons and special offers they find in the flyers.) Anyone who does not opt in and still receives unwanted mail can call the city, and the sender will be fined 500 euros (about US$560). As a result, Amsterdam is saving 6,000 tons of paper and 700 trash runs per year.
This impact speaks to how much could be saved in a huge country like the U.S. where consumers receive more than 100 billion pieces of junk mail every year, killing 2.6 million trees.
Amsterdam’s results are so impressive that other cities and countries want to follow its example. France has already drafted legislation, and in Germany, the newly elected government responded favorably to Sielmann’s petition to introduce the Dutch opt-in model. The nonprofit Environmental Action Germany (DUH) calculated that 535,000 tons of CO2, 42 billion liters of water, 4.3 billion kilowatt hours of energy, and 1.6 million tons of wood are wasted by producing and shipping a whopping 28 billion advertisements every year in Germany alone.
This is because the opt-out model doesn’t account for what psychologists call the “default effect.” Generally, about 80 percent of people will accept the default condition in most situations. This is why Google pays up to $15 billion every year to be the pre-installed default search engine on Apple computers. It’s why in Austria, where everybody is an organ donor unless they opt out, the donor consent rate is nearly 99 percent. Even Audi figured out that it can sell more expensive cars by making its standard model come with extras that buyers opt out of, rather than opting in to extras on the cheaper model. Also, the opt-out system for junk mail requires consequences for violating it. Residents complain that some couriers will deposit a stack of flyers at the entrance instead of in the mailbox, or simply ignore the opt-out sticker altogether. The problem: The resident has little recourse.
The opt-in system for junk mail seems a no-brainer, but opposition is fierce. Marketing agencies and postal services, for which bulk mail is a money maker, often oppose it. In Holland, ad agencies even sued to stop the opt-in plan, but the environmental and animal protection party, Partij voor de Dieren, which initiated the plan, persevered and won in court.
In response to Sielmann’s petition for an opt-in system in Germany — which has already garnered 100,000 signatures — the National Bundesverband Druck und Medien (National Association of Print and Media) launched a campaign called “The value of advertisement mail,” which claims that 94 percent of recipients read their junk mail, and accuses Sielmann of endangering jobs. But waste management expert Stefan Gäth, professor at the University Gießen, contradicts this, estimating that 85 to 90 percent of junk mail ends up in the trash unread.
“Simply through stopping unwanted ad flyers, we could save more than half a million tons of CO2,” DUH executive director Barbara Metz said in a statement. “Without expensive innovations and with no delay, the government could stop the ad tsunami with a simple opt-in measure. Nobody has to sacrifice anything. If someone wants to keep getting ads, they will.”