Advocates call it advertising mail. Opponents call it junk mail. Whatever the nomenclature, the Congressional Research Service says that 104 million pieces of commercial mail were delivered to U.S. households in 2007. Commercial mail constitutes 60% of all U.S. household mail, and the average household receives about 17 pieces per week. Seeking to end, or at least restrict that, are Do Not Mail laws. Last year Do Not Mail legislation seeking to give consumers the chance to opt out was introduced in 12 states. They include Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, and Hawaii.

These laws vary by state, but all would require the creation of a Do Not Mail registry or list of those not wishing to receive commercial advertisements via U.S. Post. (For a complete list click here.)

The legislation would make commercial mail marketers responsible for scrubbing from their mailing lists any consumers listed on the register. Proponents have compared the proposed Do Not Mail laws with the highly popular Do Not Call laws of earlier in the decade. Do Not Call began at the state level, and ultimately culminated in the passage of federal legislation. On Oct. 1, 2003, an online federal Do Not Call registry was opened that eventually removed the majority of U.S. households from the call lists of telemarketers. Federal DNC rules are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, and violations can result in penalties of as much as $11,000 per infraction.

Moving From the Ground Up

Though no state has as yet passed a Do Not Mail law, the movement to restrict commercial mail took a leap forward in March. That's when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, by 9 to 2, approved a non-binding resolution calling for the creation of a Do Not Mail registry. Will Colven, San Francisco spokesman for ForestEthics, an environmental group spearheading opposition to commercial mail, says that the idea is to gain the support of local municipalities, then legislatures, while calling for legislation at the federal level similar to the Do Not Call law.

Opponents of commercial mail such as ForestEthics cite two reasons for their campaign. They say junk mail is a "waste of time" and an invasion of privacy. The bigger argument is that junk mail makes a substantial contribution to global warming. According to Colven, 100 million trees are felled each year to produce the commercial mail directed to U.S. mailboxes, 44% of which, he says, is unopened and goes directly into landfills. A website launched by ForestEthics, Do Not, has collected 100,000 signatures on a petition to establish a national Do Not Mail registry.

On the other side of the battle lines are the Direct Marketing Association, many small businesses and Mail Moves America, a DMA-sponsored coalition. Ben Cooper, Mail Moves America's executive director, says that "more than 300,000 small businesses rely on advertising mail to reach potential customers." He calls it "the most affordable and impactful way" for small businesses to advertise and says that recycling and sustainable forestry practices in the paper production industry mean that "mail is a very environmentally responsible way to advertise." Both sides claim solid public support.

The Do Not site operated by ForestEthics quotes a 2007 Zogby poll, which found that 89% of Americans support the concept of Do Not Mail registries. On other hand, studies commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service and cited by Valpak show 64% of respondents indicating that they made a purchase based on a commercial mail offering.