The 10 News Investigators found the USPS will open, inspect, and sometimes reject packages it suspects may be shipped in recycled Priority or Express Mail packages.
Tampa's Jim Rojas owns an eBay "middleman" company. Every day, he inspects dozens of Priority Mail deliveries. He then re-packages them and re-ships them internationally.
Rojas, who admits he's "no tree-hugger," said he still tries to recycle boxes as much as he can, but emailed the 10 News Investigators at firstname.lastname@example.org when the USPS kept refusing his recycled boxes.
Even though Rojas spray-painted, re-wrapped, and covered his recycled Priority Mail boxes, the postal service opened his packages and often returned them because he used Priority packaging to ship first-class mail.
"I thought I was doing them a favor by recycling their boxes and keeping their costs down," Rojas said of the USPS, "but that doesn't seem to be the case."
The 10 News Investigators took five used Priority Mail boxes from the station mailroom and conducted a similar experiment.
Five boxes -- all re-packaged, covered, and re-used -- were shipped first class from different Tampa Bay zip codes to different addresses around the country.
All five packages arrived quickly, but two boxes with USPS logos still visible arrived with postage due. The USPS charged the recipients the difference between the first-class price and the Priority price. Often, priority mail costs twice as much as first-class mail, but doesn't arrive at its destination any quicker.
But because the USPS provides its Priority and Express packaging for free to customers using its service, it claims ownership of the boxes forever. That means even after the package is shipped, the USPS prohibits re-using that box for anything except another Priority or Express shipment.
Representatives from the USPS refused to discuss the matter on-camera, but referred 10 News to federal laws that said, "United States Postal Service shipping supplies...(are) the property of the (USPS) and...any matter mailed in these free boxes is charged the appropriate Express Mail or Priority Mail price, regardless of how the packaging is reconfigured."
Misusing a piece of packaging could actually land a consumer behind bars, but the agency said its biggest concern is preventing people from abusing free shipping materials.
The USPS also pointed out its annual sustainability report the numerous environmental honors its received, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) WasteWise Partner of the Year award in 2010 and 2011, the EPA's National Partnership for Environmental Priorities award in 2011, and the Climate Registry Gold award in 2011.
But since it ships 790 million annual pieces of Priority Mail annually plus another 40 million pieces of Express Mail, there could be upwards of a billion boxes produced annually by the USPS. And in some cases, recycling has become an innocent bystander.
"I could just throw (the boxes) in the garbage can and let the garbage man take it....filling up the landfills," Rojas said.
Rojas, who spends $6,000 a month with the postal service, said he's finally given up trying to re-use Priority Mail boxes with the USPS. He now either buys new boxes to ship first-class or he ships his packages via UPS or FedEx.
Read about other investigations written by Noah Pransky
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