More than 21 billion pieces of junk mail are being shoved through Britain's letterboxes each year prompting a growing backlash against the industry.
Government figures show that 550,000 tonnes of direct mail were posted last year. Renewed concern over the scale of the industry has been fuelled by the widely reported case of the Royal Mail postman, Roger Annies, who faces a disciplinary hearing after advising customers on his round how to avoid receiving junk mail. He will learn next week whether he is to keep his job.
Green campaigners are increasingly concerned at the environmental impact of junk mail, the vast majority of which is discarded unopened. Their worries have been deepened by the Annies affair, which has exposed the extent to which the privatised Royal Mail relies on junk mail to boost its profits.
Although the Royal Mail is responsible for less than 25 per cent of direct mail, it said this week it was a vital way of subsidising other parts of its business and keeping down the price of stamps.
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "The sad reality is that it is not in the interest of the industry or the Royal Mail to do anything about it."
Mr Annies' case has prompted wide scale public sympathy and a rash of inquiries by householders wanting to find out how they can opt out through the Mailing Preference Service run by the Direct Marketing Association that represents the industry. Since 1997 the amount of junk mail has increased by 65 per cent, with each household receiving the equivalent of 18 items a week. Unwanted post makes up 4 per cent of the waste paper in Britain.
Spam, it's electronic equivalent, is also rampant, accounting for as much as a third of e-mail traffic in the UK. Laws targeting spam are riddled with loopholes, allowing junk e-mails to be sent to commercial addresses.
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner said: "Some spammers search websites, buy lists, or abuse facilities in your browser. Others use software to guess e-mail addresses based on common terms."
The Government is facing growing calls to do more to limit the amount of unwanted correspondence. It will also report this month on whether it has reached the 30 per cent target it set for the recycling of junk mail in 2003.
Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats show that the Government is one of the worst offenders. In 2004, it spent more than £1m on direct mail.
Mr Baker called on ministers to "name and shame" the most prolific companies, to make unsolicited post and leaflets socially unacceptable. He called for new laws to enforce schemes allowing people to block unwanted junk mail, adding: "The voluntary agreement between Defra and the Direct Marketing Association is not enough and the latest figures show it is already failing."
Under voluntary agreements signed three years ago, companies accepted a target to recycle 30 per cent of unwanted direct mail by the end of 2005 and 70 per cent by 2013. However, only 13 per cent of direct mail was recycled by the end of 2003, increasing to a quarter in 2004.
The Conservative shadow environment spokesman Peter Ainsworth also called for a reduction. "The best thing that people can do with their junk mail is to make sure it gets recycled but we would be better off without it in the first place," he said.
The Green Party's Simon Williams introduced a sticker system for Brighton householders requesting junk mail not to be delivered to their homes, where more than 50,000 people signed up to the campaign.
But a Green Party attempt to initiate a junk mail limitation strategy was rejected by the Labour-run Brighton City Council. In parts of Europe junk mail distributors are required to limit the days they deliver and to respect no junk mail signs. A pilot it has been running in South and West London had reduced unsolicited mail by as much as 90 per cent in some homes.
"Mr Annies' case shows that there is a conflict of interest for the Royal Mail. It is disingenuous of them to try scare householders into accepting junk mail by telling them they will not get public information."
Peter Robinson, Director of Waste Watch said: "It is estimated that each household receives around 168 pieces of junk mail each year. By taking some simple steps to reclaim your doorstep you can help reduce this mountain of unwanted paper."
The organisation has also warned that those who register for the opt-out scheme risk not getting national and local government communications.
The scheme stops all "unaddressed items" but the Royal Mail is legally obliged to deliver anything bearing an address, even if it sent to "The Occupier".
Robert Keitch, of the Direct Marketing Association, said the public actually liked receiving unsolicited correspondence. "Research among the public clearly shows how people rely on and benefit from direct marketing more than they might initially realise." He said they happily took advantage of money off coupons, vouchers and new product information.
Postman waits to learn his fate
By Matthew Beard
Roger Annies, the postman who advised people on his round how to avoid junk mail, attended a disciplinary hearing at the delivery office in Barry, South Wales, yesterday.
Speaking after the hearing, Amarjite Singh, the acting south-east Wales area representative for the Communication Workers Union, said: "He will have to wait seven days now to find out what the outcome will be. The matter is now finished."
Mr Annies, 48, landed in trouble with his bosses after he told people on his round how to avoid junk mail. He thought he was giving a service to customers.
In a leaflet distributed on his round, he informed them: "As you will have certainly already noticed, your postman is not only delivering your mail; he/she also has to deliver some (anonymous) advertising material called door-to-door items.
"For the near future, Royal Mail plans to increase your advertising mail. This will mean a lot more unwanted post in your letterbox. You may be interested in reducing your unwanted advertising mail, and reduce paper usage in order to help save the environment. If you complete the slip below and send it to the Royal Mail delivery office, you should not get any of the above mentioned unwanted advertising."
Royal Mail makes millions from delivering unwanted post. The bosses at his depot suspended the postman, who has two children and has been in the job for 10 years. He is likely to lose his job.
Mr Annies acted after dozens of complaints from householders. Within days of distributing his forms, at least 70 were returned demanding an end to the junk mail deliveries.
He declined to discuss his suspension but a colleague said he was merely responding to complaints. Homeowners called for him to be reinstated. "No one wants this junk mail building up. Roger was just letting us know what Royal Mail should have told us in the first place," said one.
How to stop unwanted post
By Barrie Clement
* ADDRESSED MAIL
Consists of mail shots by companies that have targeted you for, for example, credit cards, loans, mail order catalogues and so on. If you don't want to receive such mail, you should contact the Direct Marketing Association's Mailing Preference Service on 0845 7034599 or the website mpsonline.org.uk. It says it can cut out 95 per cent of such mail.
* UNADDRESSED MAIL
Opting out of this is not so easy. You can contact the Royal Mail through royalmail.com and click on "door to door opt-out", or ring them 08457 740740, or write to Royal Mail. The company says it distributes less than a quarter of this kind of unsolicited material.
You can register for free with the Fax Preference Service fpsonline.org.uk. You should stop receiving "unsolicited sales and marketing faxes" which have been illegal since 1999.
* LAND LINES AND MOBILES
Telephone Preference Service on tpsonline.org.uk, or call 0845 070 0707. It is a free service which stops organisations contacting you on your home or mobile phones. But the service cannot block text messages. If you want them to stop, you need to contact the firm directly.
The E-mail Preference Service dma.org.uk/content/Prf-Introduction.asp. A company needs your consent before sending a direct marketing e-mail. It must have an "unsubscribe" option. The service can help, but it cannot stop e-mails from firms which do not use the service.
* SILENT CALLS
Ring Silent Call Guard 0870 444 3969. A silent call is generated by automated dialling equipment which dials more numbers than there are operators. Silent Call Guard blocks for a year for free. Not all companies have to join the scheme. It does not block overseas calls.
* NUISANCE CALLS
You can contact BT for its Privacy at Home service to block nuisance calls.
* FOREIGN SILENT CALLS
You could ring Callblocker on 0870 066 5016. It can provide a product for about £50 that is attached to your telephone, which should block all nuisance calls.Reuse content