National Postal Museum: Greening the Mail

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I thought I’d take the opportunity on this day when everybody is wearing green to ever so tangentially talk "green." Perhaps you sent your Irish friend a card for St. Patrick’s Day. But did you stop and think about the carbon footprint of that card as it traveled by way of the United States Postal Service? If not, consider yourself pinched.

Snail mail is inherently un-green. The first problem is all that paper. According to ForestEthics' Do Not Mail campaign, more than 100 billion pieces of junk mail alone are delivered each year in the United States. It takes more than 100 million trees to produce that amount of mailers and the manufacturing process releases greenhouse gases equivalent to the combined annual emissions of Maine, Vermont, Alaska, South Dakota, Hawaii, Montana and Rhode Island!

Couple that with the environmental expense of transporting it. The 220,000 vehicles charged with carting around mail drive a combined 1.2 billion miles and guzzle 121 million gallons each year. All it takes is a quick calculation to figure out that those boxy mail trucks are averaging only 10 miles per gallon as they stop and start at every mailbox.

So I guess you could say I was equally surprised and pleased to see that the National Postal Museum's education department will be hosting a two-part workshop on "Green Ways to Move the Mail" for teenagers ages 13-17. (The workshop is scheduled for Saturdays, March 21 and April 4.)

I tried to move past the irony of the workshop’s title and really think of the efforts that the postal service is and could be taking to go greener.

Could we recycle more mail? The United States Postal Service has a green Web site that says that all mail is recyclable. Yet, in an interview in the New York Times, Michael Critelli, executive chairman of the mailing company Pitney Bowes, says that only 35.8 percent of it actually ends up in the recycle bin, as opposed to 77 percent of newspapers.

What about cutting down on junk mail? As long as every dollar spent on direct marketing yields $12 in sales there will be mailers, notes the USPS site, but it encourages companies to use recyclable paper, update their mailing lists to prevent wasteful undeliverable mail and allow customers to opt out of mailings.

And how about fueling mail trucks with alternative fuels? Little did I know, the USPS, with 142,000 or so alternative fuel vehicles, operates the largest alternative fuel fleet in the world. Most are powered by biofuels, but there are some electric vehicles in Manhattan. (Obama’s energy plan is asking that one million electric plug-in cars be on the road by 2015, and an op-ed in the New York Times last month proposed that we could make a huge dent in that quota by starting with the USPS fleet.)

Or should we revert to simpler ways? There are still mail routes that are purely traveled by bike or foot. Why not make more that way?

And is our world too fast paced to receive deliveries less than six days a week? Some jump to the conclusion that we should just save paper and email more. But since we power our computers with coal-fueled energy sources, that’s just shifting around the carbon footprint, not eliminating it.

Any ideas?

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