Paper mail has been in existence since the 1600's and while almost every other technology has evolved at breakneck speeds in response to the hyper-networked demands of life in a 21st century digital age, the postal service plunks along seemingly unchanged, save for the occasional rate increase.

Look out USPS. That is all about to change.

What Apple did to the phone, and Xerox did to the mimeograph machine (remember those?) ZumBox is about to do to mail. And however long it takes you to adapt, one thing is fairly certain, you will not go back to paper mail once you get your Zumbox.

I have to say I was slightly skeptical when I got on the phone with ZumBox CEO Glen Ward to discuss his latest digital enterprise. I've been outspoken in lamenting "paperless billing" as the greenwashing meme du jour for banks trying to look green, and if you are like me you may have also returned to doing bills the old fashioned way out of frustration with managing multiple usernames and passcodes. And besides, there's this thing called email... 

But I had to listen. For one thing I was talking to the Glen Ward, the former CEO of Virgin Entertainment Group. Out of the hundreds of vanguard technology startups he could have taken on, he went for ZumBox. And I was genuinely interested in hearing about how one little company might quite literally eliminate the need for 120 billion pieces of paper mail per year. That's 24 million tons of paper and ink and 60 million trees felled annually to feed the paper mail machine. 

There have been a few other companies working to reduce the huge environmental impacts associated with the postal service. Greendimes was a successful startup that managed to raise over $25 million in capital just to help people stop their junk mail. And then there are companies like Earth Class Mail, which eliminates unwanted paper by scanning, shredding and recycling your paper mail.

But these aren't game changers. Zumbox has quite literally reinvented the postal system by creating its digital duplicate -- a unique, secure digital mailbox for each and every single real mailbox in the US, over 160 million in total.

So Zumbox already has your digital mailbox reserved for your specific address. All you have to do is claim it, which is free. You receive a pin in the mail which verifies that it is in fact your mail box, and then you are able to send and receive digital mail at no charge -- no more stamps, no more licking.

I asked Mr. Ward where the idea came from, and he said it started with the revelation that 95% of all paper mail originates as a digital file. If so, why are we spending all the time, effort and enormous wasted resources to print out those files, enclose them in more paper, stamp them, then physically ship them across the country where they will be most likely thrown into the garbage unread (ZumBox estimated that 95% of all paper mail is never read) and then shipped again to a landfill? (only about 50% of paper mail is recycled).

There are three main reasons. One, it is secure (sort of). Opening a letter makes you feel that the contents are safe and private. When it comes to important documents like tax forms and credit card bills, having electronic copies flying around the internet just makes some people nervous. Second, it works. For 42 cents one piece of paper can end up across the country in just a few days, delivered to your doorstep. Amazing. Third, we are used to it. It's basically hard to imagine life without that daily trip to the mailbox.

But there are enormous costs -- both social and environmental -- associated with paper mail that require us to rethink the process end to end. First there are the trees. At 625 trees per acre (the average for paper farms) that's about 96,000 acres felled each year. Then there is the water. A staggering 360 billion gallons of water is used to create pulp for paper mail (see Siel's post on the Paper Footprint). On top of that you have to add the many toxic chemicals used for bleaching, coating and printing. And finally there's shipping...

According to the ZumBox white paper, "What's the real cost of a 42 cent stamp?" (PDF) the postal service requires an estimated 750 million ton-miles for shipping in the US. Though the specific CO2 per ton-mile varies greatly, one study by the LCA Center (PDF), puts it at .85 kg of CO2 per ton-mile as an average for shipping mail in the US. That works out to a whopping 703,000 tons of CO2 emitted each year by the postal service just for delivering paper mail (not boxes and packages).

So clearly ZumBox has enormous environmental benefits, but it also comes with some revolutionary new tools which really changes the very nature of mail.

First off, you are now in control. You can chose to block people who send you mail (just as if you were blocking a spammer) or you can invite mail, for instance catalog that tailor to your specific interests. ZumBox has a build in page-turner so you can view the digital catalog as if it were real, and if you want to purchase something payment in integrated. You can also send ZumMail to people in your vicinity. Say, if you're dog ran off -- you can send a photo to everyone within a 3 mile radius.

The system is completely secure and has been certified by the banking, payment and health industries, so in some regards it is safer than paper (which can also be opened). The design is also very user-friendly and emulates the experience of creating and opening mail. 

To sign up for the beta version visit the ZumBox site.

ZumBox launches 21st century postal service
Take control of your mail and protect the environment with revolutionary paperless postal service.