Waste and recycling

The junk mail industry's efforts to reduce waste caused by advertising mail focuses on two areas: recycling and targeting. So, how much junk mail is currently recycled? And what's the effect of better targeting?

Trees felled for junk mail

Before we look at recycling and targeting, let's try to answer the question that gets asked most: how many trees are killed in the name of junk mail?

The answer is: nobody knows. Even for the most unsophisticated estimate you'd need three variables:

  1. the total volume of junk mail;
  2. the volume of virgin fibres used; and
  3. the volume of fibres you can get out of the average tree.

The first variable can be guesstimated, the other two are unknown. The difficulties one faces when trying to calculate how many trees are need to produce a given amount of paper are explained quite well on the Conservatree website.

The same website does attempt to come up with a 'ballpark estimate' which we can use to calculate how the total volume of junk mail produced in the UK equates to trees. It seems reasonable to assume that between 12 and 16 trees are needed to produce a tonne of junk mail. this results in the following figures:

  Trees per tonne
Year Tonnes 12/tonne 14/tonne 16/tonne
2003 504,100 6,0m 7,1m 8,1m
2005 486,300 5,8m 6,8m 7,8m
2008 403,080 4,8m 5,6m 6,4m
2009 379,900 4,6m 5,3m 6,1m

Recycling of junk mail

Under a 'voluntary producer responsibility agreement' with Defra the junk mail industry is committed to reducing waste. The agreement, which dates back to 2003, has so far mainly focussed on increasing recycling rates for junk mail. In 2003 only 13% of junk mail was recycled, and so it was agreed to set recycling targets:

  • 30% by the end of 2005;
  • 55% by the end of 2009; and
  • 70% by the end of 2013.

The first target was narrowly missed, but in early 2010 the Direct Marketing Association and Royal Mail announced in a Direct Marketing Material Waste Prevention report that in 2009 about 76.5% of all direct mail was recycled.

Year Recycling rate
2005 29%
2008 50%
2009 77%

As you'd expect, the Direct Marketing Association and Royal Mail hailed it as a major achievement. Yet, there's nothing remarkable about the increase in recycling rates. What the figures in the table show is that recycling rates for junk mail have increased in line with recycling rates for paper in general. I'd go further than this and say the industry has done very little to increase recycling rates. Apart from printing 'Please recycle' logos on some junk mail there's really nothing it can congratulate itself with. It's telling that the report doesn't specify what measures the industry has taken to increase recycling rates and how individual measures have increased recycling rates above the rates you'd expect.

Junk mail vs other paper products

Interestingly, the waste prevention report states that recycling rates for junk mail are actually higher than recycling rates for paper and board in general. Whereas in 2009 nearly 77% of all junk mail was recycled only 67% of all paper and board was recycled in 2008.

This, of course, is not a like-for-like comparison. Not only does the report compare two different periods – 2009 for junk mail and 2008 for paper and board – it also doesn't take into account that junk mail is relatively easy to recycle. Some paper products will always be difficult to recycle; for instance, I personally don't put used tissues and toilet paper in my green box. I'm sure you can add to the list…

In order to make a fair comparison you need to look at recycling rates for paper products comparable to junk mail. An obvious candidate are newspapers and magazines. As the Direct Marketing Association no doubts knows, Defra also has a voluntary producer responsibility agreement with the Professional Publishers Association, the industry body for magazine publishers, which includes recycling targets that are very similar to the ones the junk mail industry had agreed:

  • 50% by the end of 2007;
  • 60% by the end of 2010; and
  • 70% by the end of 2013

The Professional Publishers Association exceeded its target for 2013 in 2007 (PPA Annual Report to Defra, 2008). As we have seen, it's estimated that in 2008 'only' 50% of all junk mail was recycled. It seems the claim that recycling rates for junk mail are higher than recycling rates for other types of paper is somewhat misleading.

Targeting of junk mail

Junk mail volumes are falling steadily. The industry likes to attribute its decline to the use of more sophisticated targeting techniques. Increasingly, junk mailers are collecting details about people's interests and life styles, and they use this data to target people with more 'relevant' advertisements. This is an interesting explanation for the decline but one that's difficult to substantiate. I'd suggest using the following three indicators for measuring the effect of better targeting of junk mail:

  • the amount of money spend on junk mail;
  • the response rate of mailings; and
  • the 'return on investment'.

The amount of money spend on junk mail

The better a piece of junk mail is targeted, the more it costs to produce it. In order to improve the targeting of junk mail marketeers need to use databases containing excessive amounts of personal details, and all that data needs to be interpreted by expensive consultants specialising in manipulating peoples wants and desires.

Increases in the cost of producing mail-outs would indicate improved targeting techniques. However, if we compare the total volume and expenditure of junk mail it appears the amount of money spend per piece of junk mail has only increased by 5p since 1998. If we take into account inflation the amount has actually fallen by 10p (the last column shows the decrease in the cost per item after inflation):

Year Volume Expenditure Per item Inflation Per item + / -
1998 4,014m 1,675m 42p 3.4%    
1999 4,345m 1,875m 43p 1.5% 43p + 0p
2000 4,664m 2,050m 44p 3.0% 44p + 0p
2001 4,939m 2,250m 46p 1.8% 45p + 0p
2002 5,188m 2,375m 46p 1.7% 46p - 0p
2003 5,438m 2,475m 46p 2.9% 47p - 1p
2004 5,418m 2,475m 46p 3.0% 48p - 2p
2005 5,134m 2,375m 46p 2.8% 49p - 3p
2006 5,028m 2,350m 47p 3.2% 51p - 4p
2007 4,655m 2,175m 47p 4.3% 53p - 6p
2008 4,353m 2,050m 47p 4.0% 55p - 8p
2009 3,563m 1,675m 47p - 0.5% 57p - 10p
Source: Trends in consumer and business direct mail volumes (MMC, March 2010)

The response rates of mailings

Better targeted junk mail should result in higher response rates. Unfortunately, it's not possible to get an idea of how response rates have changed over the years (such figures are secret). However, a report by the Mail Media Centre (Mail volumes and response rates by industry sector 2010, April 2011) does show that in 2010 the average response rate for addressed junk mail was 1.2%. This can hardly be an increase over previous years!

What complicates the picture is the fact that there are great variances between response rates for different sectors:

Sector Response Relative (+/-)
All 1.2%  
Retail 6.5% + 5.2
Banking 3.6% + 2.4
Charities 1.6% + 0.3
Mail order 1.3% + 0.1
Investments 0.9% - 0.3
Insurance 0.7% - 0.6
Telecom 0.6% - 0.6
Gambling 0.3% -1.0

Junk mail's return on investment

A final indicator for better targeting is the 'return on investment' – the amount of money earned (or lost) on mail-outs. Junk mail that's better targeted should have a higher return on investment (even though the cost of producing the mail-out is more expensive). The Mail Media Centre's Direct mail effectiveness report shows that junk mail's profitability has increased spectacularly; from £1.57 in 2006 to £3.22 in 2009. What makes the figures difficult to interpret is that the year-on-year increases vary wildly:

  2006 2007 2008 2009
Return on investment £1.57 £2.90 £3.18 £3.22
Up / down   + 84.7% + 9.7% + 1.3%

It should be noted that the Mail Media Centre is brought to you by Royal Mail and aims to sell the direct mail 'channel' to (potential) junk mailers. It's not exactly an objective source for data. Which is not to say better targeting isn't an important part of the cutting waste 'agenda'. It no doubt is – up to an extent where you should be concerned about how much of your personal details marketeers are collecting, I'd say. As far is cutting waste is concerned the only difficulty with 'better targeting' is that results are almost impossible to quantify.

Final thoughts

Although increasing recycling rates and better targeting are sound aims it should be noted that one thing has been largely ignored in the producer responsibility agreement between the industry and Defra: increasing opt-out rates. True, promoting the Mailing Preference Service is part of the agreement, but nothing has ever been said about Royal Mail's opt-out scheme for unaddressed mail (the Door-to-Door Opt-Out). Yet, this opt-out 'service' is in desperate need of being advertised; as at April 2009 only 0.7% of all UK households was registered with the scheme. This really is a missed opportunity; Royal Mail's opt-out scheme covers a lot more advertising mail than the Mailing Preference Service.

Encouraging people to opt out of receiving unsolicited advertising mail should be a central part of the effort to cut waste. It seems the perfectly normal increases in recycling rates and the rather vague aim of improving targeting prevent this from happening. In fact, a suggestion by Defra to set targets for the Your Choice opt-out scheme (with which a negligible 0.006% households were registered as at April 2010) was rejected by the Direct Marketing Association.

Last updated: 
4th August 2011