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Reducing, Re-purposing, & Recycling Junk Mail

Blog post by Tom Straus, 2017-18 Plant Chicago Intern

With over 20 businesses currently located at The Plant and a host of previous tenants still on various mailing lists, the building receives an extraordinary amount of mail, packages, and junk mail.  Plant Chicago intern Tom Straus dove into the building’s junk mail pile to identify potential opportunities for source reduction, re-purposing, and recycling.

Between January 2018 and March 2018 over 60 pounds of junk mail arrived at The Plant, to say nothing of intentional packages and mailings. This material issue presents an opportunity for cultivating the circular economy within the building. For the first phase of research we continually tracked the quantity, weights, and types of junk mail.  Data was also collected on the sender, receiver, and account information, which is now being used to unsubscribe companies from mailing lists to fight this waste through source reduction.

Potential uses for non-glossy papers include composting or shredding to use as a packaging material. An identified potential use for the materials not easily composted has been to shred the junk mail and utilize it as packaging material for businesses that ship items from The Plant. Plant Chicago’s Technology Coordinator Eric Weber and his intern Tyler, after their own set of experimentation, were successfully able to convert an old wood-chipper to run on an electric motor. This allows Plant Chicago to utilize the energy produced from our solar array to shred mail into the desired size for various uses.

Catalogs from companies such as Uline and American Plastics Corporation made up the largest proportion of junk mail by weight.  The majority of these materials are recyclable and/or compostable, making them a potentially valuable materials stream.

The second largest category by weight was magazines, the majority of which were glossy or mixed media.  These materials pose an issue as most are glossy or mixed media, both of which are difficult or unsafe to compost. What’s more, these materials do not have subscription information to remove the building and its tenants from their mailing lists. Fortunately, through experimentation on size and blending techniques we can re-purpose these materials to increase their overall life-cycle.

Stay tuned on our blog for updates about the potential for packaging material made from junk mail and other thrilling Circular Economy topics! 


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