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PEEL-AND-STICK STAMPS POSING A STICKY PROBLEM

The U.S. Postal Service which likes to boast about how much it recycles - is rushing to develop a new glue for its peel-and-stick stamps. It seems that the so-called stickies are threatening to gum up some recycling plants.

The problem is that the glue on the back of the stamps, which were introduced in 1989, isn't 100 percent water-soluble. (The glue on old-fashioned lick-and-paste stamps is.) So when too many stamps are mixed in with waste paper, clumps of glue can gum up papermaking equipment, resulting, for instance, in tiny holes in recycled paper products. "It's a quality issue," says one paper maker.It's also an uncomfortable predicament for an organization that runs print and radio ads touting its recycling record and supports a government hotline called Earth 911 for the Environment.

Some recyclers have griped to the post office that its stamps are making their job more difficult and that they should have avoided the problem.

"We knew it would in some cases hinder repulping," says Catherine Caggiano, the post office's manager of stamp acquisition, referring to the process of making old paper into new pulp.

Hoping to fend off more criticism, the post office recently told representatives of the printing, adhesives and recycling industries that it is working to eliminate the problem at the source. It has hired Springborn Laboratories Inc., of Enfield, Conn., to come up with a "totally benign" adhesive, says Robin Wright, a post office spokesman. But stamps with the new glue won't be on the market for several years.

So far, the businesses that gather old paper and bundle it up to sell to the mills have responded by limiting the number of offending envelopes they stick into bundles. But as the use of stickies increases, that is becoming tougher.

In 1994, only 2.4 billion peel-and-stick stamps were sold; but this year, that number is expected to top 30 billion - more than half the 50 billion stamps that will be sold. By the turn of the century, some 90 percent of all stamps are expected to be this type.

"The problem arises when you have more and more of these stamps showing up in the waste stream," affirms Bill Schlenger, general manager of sales for Harmon Associates, a waste-paper brokerage firm based on Long Island.