The Problem

The unsolicited mailing of catalogs is a massive environmental problem. Not only is it wasting an unimaginable amount of natural resources, it is also hugely energy intensive and produces significant global warming pollution.

I’ve found conflicting information and included 4 sets of data. Set 1 is most current and reliable and what I’ll be using from now on.


Set 1 – According 2007 data from  The Natural Resources Defense Council:

  • over 19 billion catalogs are mailed per year in the USA, using up:
  • 53 million trees (the equivalent of clear-cutting 2,000 Central Parks)
  • 53 billion gallons of water (enough to fill 81,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools)
  • enough energy to supply 1.2 million homes annually (38 billion BTUs), thus causing…
  • CO2 emissions equal to 2 million cars annually (5.2 million tons of CO2)
  • the industry’s own research shows that less than 2% of the catalogs received in this country actually result in a purchase – 98% of catalogs are unused
  • 95% of those catalogs are made from virgin forests (i.e., with no recycled paper content), at great ecological costs to our atmosphere, biodiversity, water, rare forests, landfills and incinerators.

Set 2 – According to 2005 data from Environmental Defense Fund Paper Calculator and Resource Information Systems, Inc (provided to me by the National Wildlife Federation):

  • 19.8 billion catalogs were mailed in the USA in 2005, using up:
  • 61.5 million trees (8,900,000 tons of wood)
  • enough energy to supply 1.4 million homes annually (126 trillion BTUs), thus causing…
  • CO2 emissions equal to 2.2 million cars annually (12 million tons of CO)
  • 8.7 billion pounds of solid waste are generated (equivalent to 311,000 fully-loaded garbage trucks)
  • 59 billion gallons of wastewater are released when making this paper

Set 3 – According to 2004 figures from the Direct Marketing Association and Catalog Age Weekly:

  • 18 billion catalogs were sold in 2004
  • that’s 64 catalogs for every man, woman, and child in USA
  • catalog production has increased by over 40% from 1994-2004
  • the average response rate for catalogs in 2003 was 2.52%

Set 4 – According to 2001 figures from Environmental Defense:

  •  17 billion catalogs were mailed in the USA in 2001
  • that’s 59 catalogs per man, woman, and child in USA
  • comprising 12 percent of all printing and writing paper in 2001
  • most contain no recycled content

Set 5 – My conversions are based on data Set 1:

  • Over 600 catalogs per second are produced and mailed.
  • Assuming 11 catalogs per inch piled up (this was figured during much study in my class and is conservative) that’s a 70-mile tall stack of catalogs per day (12 times the height of Mt. Everest).
  • Put end-to-end, these 10-inch-long catalogs could circle the Earth (24,900 miles) with only 3 days of catalog mailings. In a year, they would circle the early 126 times.

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Click here to read an article about the catalog problem that I wrote for The Huffington Post. For even more detail about how catalogs fit into the larger “junk mail” problem, check out this new report from Forest Ethics.