Recycling offers direct mail another chance to make a difference

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Discarded direct mail pieces still have a shot at achieving great results, at least from an environmental standpoint. It’s called recycling.

The catch is that just because the capacity for recycling direct mail exists, that doesn’t mean consumers are doing it. According to the Direct Marketing Association, more than 60% of the American population has access to recycling for magazines, catalogs and direct mail through curbside pickup, drop-off centers or both. But only 39% of catalogs and direct mail are actually being recycled from the home.

This gap between potential and actual recycling is where some experts believe direct mail marketers could make a contribution to the green movement. These professionals offer an expansive reach and finely tuned persuasive powers—two attributes that could help educate consumers about direct mail’s recyclability and improve recovery rates of mixed paper materials.

“Marketers have made so many things socially unacceptable in the past 100 years … we can sell the idea of recycling. Selling is what we do,” said Spyro Kourtis, president-CEO of Hacker Group, a direct marketing company that founded the Green Marketing Coalition in 2007.

According to Bill Moore, president of paper recycling consultancy Moore & Associates, local differences in recycling procedures mean the “nuts and bolts details have to come directly from the [recycling] program.” But as budget constraints prevent individual programs from investing in public education, Moore said there is an opportunity for broad-based campaigns to promote the idea of recycling direct mail, if not the act.

Launched in May, DMA’s Recycle Please nationwide public education campaign takes this approach. DMA has asked member organizations to display a Federal Trade Commission-approved logo on catalogs and direct mail pieces to encourage consumers to recycle pieces after reading them. The association also provides consumer recycling tips as well as design and production best practices to maximize direct mail recyclability via

Meta Brophy, director of publishing operations for Consumers Union, one of more than 80 direct mail marketers participating in Recycle Please, doesn’t see any disadvantages to the program. Using the Recycle Please logo on mail pieces has not affected Consumers Union’s response rates. The only challenge has been determining where on mail pieces to place the logo, Brophy said.

“We decided from the get-go not to print it on the outer envelope or on the reply device so as not to distract the customer from the marketing message,” she added. “We have printed the logo on the back of a letter and on a back page or a front page of a multipage self-mailer. All three locations have worked well.”

Of course, promoting direct mail recycling entails more than just displaying a logo. Marketers also need to consider recyclability when designing their mail pieces, said DMA Director of Corporate Responsibility Serenity Edwards.

Nonpaper inserts, such as CDs, perfume samples and plastic membership cards, cannot be recycled. If these materials must be used, Edwards suggested making them easily detachable and/or instructing consumers to remove them before recycling.

In addition, certain adhesives and inks can complicate the recycling process. Fortunately, recycling-friendly options, such as water-soluble adhesives and vegetable- or soy-based inks, are readily available, Edwards added.

Joanne Veto, spokeswoman for the United States Postal Service, which is running its own campaign asking marketers to become “environMAILists,” believes making smart decisions about inks, papers and finish adds value to marketing mail.

“As people demand environmental responsibility from the companies they prefer, the job falls to businesses to demonstrate how green they are through their corporate policies and marketing communications, including direct mail,” she said.

And if corporate responsibility is not enough, increased recycling of mixed paper materials, such as direct mail, could also deliver financial benefits.

“When more people recycle, the availability of recycled paper should increase—and, hopefully, the cost will go down,” Kourtis said. “I wonder if people would be surprised to know that virgin paper stock costs less than recycled. Part of the cost is in the processes needed to recycle paper, but part is also in the availability.”

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