Spam vs junk mail - which is the lesser evil?

By Pat Pilcher

While I, like most people, hate spam with a passion, I still wonder if our near endless obsession with obnoxious emails offering to enlarge our wobbly bits or even allowing us the pleasure of growing Nigeria's GDP has blinded us to an even bigger issue?

While there's doubt whatsoever that the daily grind of deleting junk email is right up there with root canal surgery, throwing out piles of unread junk mail printed on bits of a dead tree that could've otherwise been soaking up CO2 seems to me to be bordering on criminally insane.

Bizarrely, while there's been a massive effort by governments globally to combat spam, comparatively little seems to have been done to curb the growing amount of printed junk mail hitting our letterboxes on a daily basis.

This is a real shame as the environmental impacts of printed junk mail makes the annoyance associated with spam seem pretty minor by comparison. The US produces and uses a third of the world's paper, its citizens use more than 300kg of paper per year, per person.

The frugal Japanese use 250 kilograms while Indians consume a meagre 4kgs. Even more impressive still, is the average African who uses less than 1kg. More alarmingly, the United Nations estimate that 30-40Kgs of paper is the minimum to meet basic literacy and communication needs.

However you look at it, we're consuming lots of paper.

To understand the impact of this consumption lets look at what's involved paper production. Statistics vary, but on average, producing one ton of paper requires 2-3 times its weight in trees (which once again could be better used soaking up CO2 than telling us about this weeks latest specials).

Newly cut trees account for an astonishing 55 per cent of all the worlds paper supply, while 38 per cent of all our paper is recycled from wood-based paper, the remaining 7 per cent of our paper is sourced from non-tree sources.

The pulp and paper industry is also the world's fifth largest industrial consumer of energy, using more water to produce a ton of product than almost any other industry. Add to this the fuel costs and environmental impacts of transporting paper from the pulp mills, to the printers and ultimately your letter-box so you can be told about a product you probably didn't know you wanted and things begin to look very grim indeed.

Spam might not have the same environmental impact as its printed counterpart, but its business costs are very real. Back in 2003, research company Nucleus took a long hard look at spam and found that the costs of spam to businesses bordered on astonishing.

After conducting hundreds of interviews across different US companies, Nucleus found that in 2003, workers received on average, 13.3 spam messages per day.

Aside from trying to figure out what 0.3 of a spam message looks like, dealing to spam on a daily basis consumed up to 90 minutes of a worker's valuable recreational surfing time. Nucleus also found that this translated into an average annual cost per employee of US$874.

These are 2003 figures and Since then the spam deluge has become much, much worse. According to Proofpoint Attack Response Centre (PARC), business spam volumes have risen by more than 50 per cent just in the first quarter of 2008 and more worryingly, are anticipated to more than double this year, continuing the trend of the last two years.

Avoiding spam however isn't difficult. Just following three simple rules can dramatically cut the volume of spam hitting your email inbox. The single most important rule is to avoid using your personal email address for anything but emailing people you know.

Posting your personal email address on public forums inevitably leads to it being harvested and on-sold to spammers. If you must register for online services, use forums or contact companies, set up and use a free email account such as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo which can cop all the spam that'd otherwise land in your personal inbox.

The second rule is to use a good spam filter. Nowadays, even the most basic email applications come with a spam filter which can put suspect emails into a junk folder, leaving your inbox relatively uncluttered.

The last rule, but by no means least, is do not reply to junk mail.

Replying to spam not only tells spammers that yours is a live email address, but also increases its re-sale value, resulting in it being on-sold to even more spammers and you getting even more spam.

Depending on where in the world you live, dealing with printed junk mail can be a tricky proposition. In the UK you can register with Royal Mail to stop unaddressed mail from being delivered to your letter box and then there's also the Mailing Preference Service (MPS), which can remove your postal details from up to 95 per cent of direct mail lists in the UK.

In New Zealand, the Marketing Association operates a similar service called the Name Removal Service, which will get address details removed from member mailing lists.

Unfortunately there's no national law preventing unaddressed junk mail from being delivered, with only a handful of local councils enforcing by-laws that prevent junk mail from being delivered to post boxes displaying "no junk mail" labels.

Regardless of where in the world you happen to live, you can still do your bit to reduce the environmental impact from printed junk mail.

Support brands who use opt-in email mailers to reduce the amount of paper you consume.

If there's a name removal service or your postal service offers a service to block unaddressed mail use it. Failing that, boycott manufacturers who advertise using paper made from virgin wood and support those that print on recycled paper.

Using recycled paper creates 74 per cent less air pollution and 35 per cent less water pollution. Remember the only reason both electronic and junk email still exists is that there is still a demand for it.

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