“Stop! No advertising”, “Please no flyers” or “Junk mail banned!” – these are just some of the phrases often seen taped to post boxes across Germany.
Those who don’t want to receive advertising pamphlets have to make that clear by putting a sign on their postbox.
A wasteful system
The non-profit organisation Environmental Action Germany (DUH) wants to redesign the system to ensure that advertising brochures are only delivered to those who actively want them. This could be indicated by a sign saying “advertisements welcome”.
Chairwoman of German Environmental Aid, Barbara Metz, told DPA that an opt-in system would be beneficial to everyone.
“Those who still want to receive advertising can simply make that known with a sign on their postbox,” said Metz. “This would help reduce the senseless waste produced by unwanted advertisements.”
Postal advertising in Germany “produces mountains of waste and fills entrance halls with litter, as well as being a huge waste of resources and bad for the environment”.
The organisation has launched a petition to pressure the German government, and specifically Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht of the Social Democrat Party, into taking action.
According to their spokeswoman, the Ministry of Justice currently has no plans to introduce such a system. If consumers were asked to actively express their consent, “probably only a small number” of them would do so.
A local lifeline?
While such a system would help reduce waste, it would also “restrict commercial freedom”, she explained.
This method of advertising is particularly important for local companies. “It is also important to protect freedom of press, as some pamphlets also contain an editorial section.”
Consumers who do not want advertising can already make this clear “without much effort”, she added.
'No advertising' signs are not always observed, however. Consumer advice centers monitor infringements against the current rules and take action against repeat offenders.
However, free advertising leaflets which also contain an editorial section can be put into post boxes regardless of any signs.
The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) estimates that Germany’s 41.3 million households receive 500 to 700 grams worth of unsolicited advertising and free newspapers per week, which in turn amounts to 1.1 to 1.5 million tonnes of paper every year.
This figure does not include the households with 'no advertising' signs. However, and the exact number of these remains unknown.
“Producing and distributing paper flyers damages the environment, and so resources should be used as sparingly as possible.”, said UBA expert Almut Reichart.
Free newspapers are normally made entirely out of waste paper, but even paper recycling has negative effects on the environment.
She also stressed, however, that these newspapers can contain important information.
“It is difficult to draw a line between unwanted advertising and information useful to customers and citizens, all while considering the associated right to freedom of speech.”
A survey carried out in May by the DUH and the Kantar Institute sought to look further into the issue.
According to the study, 78 percent of people aged 14 and over in Germany saw the environmental impact of printed circulars and advertising brochures as “very high” or “rather high”, while 61 percent thought that unsolicited advertising brochures should be banned.
On the other hand, 69 percent admit to occasionally planning ahead for their weekly shop, and 60 percent of them use advertising brochures to do so.
According to the German Advertising Federation, only 27 percent of post boxes in Germany have a ‘no advertising’ sign.
Mailbox advertising is vital not only for the local economy, but also for sport and cultural societies, it says. “It is the most important way of reaching existing and new customers”.
Introducing new restrictions would put local companies at a “substantial disadvantage” compared to online businesses, they argue.
In addition, the impact that mail advertising has on the environment is consistently overestimated, because most advertisements are printed on recycled paper. An opt-in model would also be tantamount to 'nannying’ the population, they said.
The association Letzte Werbung (Last Advertisement) sees it differently. The organisation was set up to combat unwanted advertising, and they worked together with the DUH to launch the petition calling for an opt-in system.
“When people browse the internet, they are given the option to consent to advertising”, said chairman Sebastian Sielmann. Consumers are not given the same option when it comes to printed advertising, which “makes no sense”.