The Dematerialization of Mail in the US: 35 Billion Pieces Over Two Years

Using global data published by the Universal Post Union (UPU) for 2008, I calculate 58.5 grams of CO2e per piece of mail. A similar analysis of United States Postal Service (USPS) data yields 51.8 and 54.4 grams for FY2007 and FY2008, respectively. These include all mail pieces, including parcels, and represent all CO2e sources, including fixed facilities.

The USPS report shows mail volume declined by 25.6 billion pieces in FY2009, following a drop of 9.5 billion pieces in FY2008. While economic conditions play a roll, I suspect they are largely accelerating the inevitable dematrialization* of mail . An economic recovery is unlikely to mark a return to FY2007 volumes. This represents gross CO2e reduction of ~1.8 million metric tonnes over the two-year period. The unit increase in CO2e from FY2007 to FY2008 suggests that the USPS, despite its sustainability initiatives, is struggling to reduce CO2e overhead as fast as its volume is declining.

Pitney Bowes reports and "...a survey of more than a dozen studies shows that the indicative range of CO2 emissions associated with the upstream mail piece creation process is about 0.9 – 1.3 grams of CO2 per gram of paper. " This yields an additional gross reduction of ~30 grams per 1 oz. direct mail piece. Additional reductions come from less paper creation and disposal.

Net CO2e savings have to be calculated by considering substitute behavior. By comparison, the carbon footprint of an email is estimated to be under 1 gram and that of an online activity to be 1-10 grams.

All this ICT dematerialization comes at a price. The USPS reduced its career workforce by 40,000 positions in 2009. Moving molecules is more labor itensive than moving electrons.

* Dematerialization as the process by which an ICT product or service replaces a physical activity with a electronic one. Here, we are talking about ICT services like email, collaborative work sites, online bill paying, online financial services, etc.

Related: Dematerialization of CDs and DVDs