A peace deal between Royal Mail and postal workers ending the industrial strife that has dogged the service in recent months could lead to households being deluged with junk mail, it emerged yesterday.
Under the terms of the agreement reached on Monday night, 121,000 postal workers will abandon their limit of three items of "unaddressed mail" per home per week and instead deliver unlimited amounts of advertisements for takeaways, cash offers and other products.
Consumer groups warned the move could lead to a significant rise in the amount of junk mail landing on door mats, and increase the estimated nine million trees uprooted annually for paper for flyers.
Caroline Laitner, a spokeswoman for the charity WasteWatch, said response rates for direct mail were only a few per cent, meaning the vast majority of communications ended up in the bin. "The one thing you can say about junk mail is that if people wanted it, it wouldn't be called junk mail," she said. "Giving organisations carte blanche to send out unlimited mail could be disastrous for the environment.
"A lot of companies argue that they only send unaddressed mail to people who want to receive it, but if you look at response rates you can see there are an awful lot of people who don't want to receive it," said the former advertising executive.
In return for agreeing the modernisation negotiated by the Communication Workers Union, postmen and postwomen will receive a 6.9 per cent pay rise over three years and a £400 lump sum.
Despite its limit, Royal Mail already has a quarter of the direct-mail market, slightly ahead of its main rival, the Dutch-owned TNT, with the rest taken up by regional and local distributors.
However, the 394-year-old state-owned service says it needs to develop its share of commercial mailings to offset the loss of traditional business caused by the decline of handwritten letters and the rise of email.
The company said yesterday: "Royal Mail handles about one in four unaddressed mail items, and the agreement with the union will enable us to further improve our quality of service and compete even more effectively with competitors to increase our market share."
Direct-mail companies claim they have reduced waste through better targeting by using profiling data on household age, occupation, and the interests of people in certain areas.
Robert Keitch, the membership and brand manager of the Direct Marketing Association, acknowledged that Royal Mail was likely to attract new business, but insisted unfettering its operation was unlikely to result in a deluge of direct mail.
He said that people believed that "somehow there's going to be this magic wand and the postie's bag is going to be full of all this stuff". "The reality is that Royal Mail are going to have to compete with a huge number of organisations for door-to-door delivery, but they're also going to have to compete against other media channels," he said.
The £277m-a-year industry says it accounts for only 2 per cent of household waste and that most mailings are recycled.
"People keep on talking about junk mail, but what do they mean?" Mr Keitch said. "We tend to forget we're a nation of traders, and the vast majority of people reading this article are going to be relying on a company that makes use of direct mail."
However, Robert Rijkhoff, the founder of the Stop Junk Mail campaign, described junk mail as "very environmentally unfriendly compared with other forms of advertising". He added: "The Royal Mail and the Direct Marketing Association will always talk about targeting and people who have got mail delivered to them reading it, but most people put it in the bin and it is irrelevant.
"It really comes down to sending out as much advertising as possible and hoping for a small return that will justify the investment. Also, you don't have a say about what advertising you receive; it's a bit intrusive."
Nigel Woods, a postal expert for the publicly funded watchdog Consumer Focus, recommended people concerned about direct mail register with Royal Mail's opt-out scheme.
"Royal Mail must approach this responsibly and ensure that customers aren't deluged with unwanted mail," he said.
He added: "Less than 5 per cent of paper used in direct marketing comes from non-recycled or -managed resources. We will be contacting the Direct Marketing Association to discuss how to increase the amount of junk mail that is recycled."
Royal Mail will not release figures on the number of people who opt out of direct-mail deliveries, but it is believed to be less than 1 per cent of the population. Residents may also register with the Mailing Preference Service run by the Direct Marketing Association.
The Stop Junk Mail campaign recommends people use junkbuster. org.uk, which registers an objection to receiving junk mail with six schemes.
So, are unsolicited letters really such a bad thing?
Yes: Robert Rijkhoff
Junk mail is an environmental hazard. We all know we're using more than our fair share of paper in the UK and that we're wasting it on useless stuff such as "direct mail", as senders prefer to call it. It is the most polluting form of advertising. It is also the most intrusive advertising medium. We can choose to ignore advertisements on television or in the newspaper, but we have to do something with those that are pushed through the door. Why is it assumed that I'm happy for people to creep up to my house with yet another takeaway menu for an outlet on the other side of town? The Direct Marketing Association would no doubt say that junk mail is a vital marketing tool for local businesses and charities and that the UK economy would collapse without the stuff. Neither is true. Junk mail is a marketing tool, but there's nothing vital about it. And the wider economic benefits of junk mail are grossly exaggerated. As long as the direct-mail industry doesn't have to take environmental costs into consideration and doesn't have to pay for the disposal of unsolicited dung, we'll be inundated. It's the cheap option: cheap and nasty.
The writer is founder of the Stop Junk Mail campaign
No: Robert Keitch
In a nutshell, junk mail door-drops work. They result in more sales, more visits to websites and more charity donations. We are a nation of traders, and door-drops are just one of the techniques that companies use to lay out their stall to attract customers. By making greater use of data-profiling, campaigns have become increasingly sophisticated. Last month's British Marketing Survey found that leaflets through the door received the highest response of all advertising channels, including newspapers, television and email. Of course, door-drops aren't always the most appropriate medium, and no organisation wants to risk its reputation, or bottom line, by sending irrelevant information to uninterested people. Nobody wants to carpet-bomb householders with letters and leaflets advertising products and services they don't want. Thanks to improved practices, direct mail volumes have fallen since 2005. The industry is often criticised for its impact on the environment. In fact, direct mail forms less than 2 per cent of household waste, and most is recycled. Its annual carbon footprint per home is equivalent to half a cheeseburger.
The writer is membership chief of the Direct Marketing AssociationReuse content