Putting the Brakes on Junk Mail

Junk mail - the original spam.There are many aspects of our culture that actually do more damage than they are worth. I can think of no better example than the ubiquitous practice of direct mail marketing, more commonly referred to as junk mail. More than 100 billion pieces of junk mail are delivered in the United States each year, which comes out to 848 pieces per household.

This practice ensures that every dwelling in America receives a steady stream of unwanted offers for things we do not need and almost always do not want. The result is a daily ritual of scanning the mail, sorting the real stuff from the junk, and then (hopefully) recycling what’s left – although about 44% of junk mail ends up in landfills unopened. Unfortunately for all of us, just enough people actually respond to these invasive offers to make it profitable for the companies that do it.

Corporate profits are only possible because the real costs are not included on their balance sheets. Rather they are born by others, labeled by economists as “externalities” in a process of legerdemain that makes Houdini’s greatest accomplishments seem like child’s play. The junk in our mailboxes costs our communities over $1 billion annually to “dispose” of it. It results in the loss of over 100 million trees a year (the lungs of our planet) from endangered areas like Canada’s boreal forest and the remaining forests of the Southeastern United States. In Canada alone, the equivalent of over 220,000 acres of pristine forest is destroyed every year to make junk mail in the United States. The junk mail process wastes about 28 billion gallons of water and emits over 51 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses every year. That is the equivalent of 2.4 million cars idling 24 hours per day seven days a week and just as useless.

It would be nice if we had leadership on this issue. A national “Do Not Mail” registry would be a good start, but we’ve all seen the gridlock that masquerades as politics in Washington. The next best thing is personal action, so here are a few tips on what we can do to reduce the junk mail and help the environment.

First of all, vote with your dollars. Refuse to do business with companies that are willing to trash the planet to make a few bucks, and let them know it. This is the most powerful way to send a message that you do not appreciate junk mail.

The next step is to get off the mailing lists to reduce the amount of unwanted mail you receive. Fortunately there are a number of ways to do it. Some are completely free while others charge a nominal fee. In either case, the results can be well worth it.

One of my favorites is Catalog Choice. After creating a free account with them, you provide information about each unwanted catalog or junk mail offer you receive. They will contact the company on your behalf, requesting that they stop sending mail, remove your information from their lists, and cease sharing your information with anyone else. Your requests are stored on their site so you can log in to view your choices, submit new ones or have them resubmit a request that has not been honored. If you continue to receive unwanted mail from a particular company they also have an option to submit a formal complaint.

Another option is to use a paid service like 41pounds.org. The $41 cost for five years averages out to less than 70 cents a month and for that they will contact up to thirty direct mail companies on your behalf to stop the majority of bulk mail that comes to your home every day. There are several other services out there, including a new App called PaperKarma that simply requires you to send a photo of the junk mail to them for processing.

Green Living is an ongoing journey and putting the brakes on junk mail is an easy and affordable step along the way. Let’s all do our part.

Additional Resources: You can visit DoNotMail.org for more information. Also, ForestEthics has put together some good data on the impact of junk mail which can be found in this factsheet (PDF) or their Climate Report (PDF).

Another site, UnJunkMail.com seems a bit dated but they do have a list of junk mail filtering services (PDF) that has some additional references.


  1. Steve,

    Every chance we get we let companies know to delete us from their mailing list. However, you failed to mention the amount of political junk mail that starts now for the elections which is impossible to get stopped.

    We have often thought we would save all the political junk, sort by candidate and vote for the one that sends us the fewest pieces of mail.

    • I agree that political junk mail is among the worst and rarely provides valuable information.

      I think there might be better ways to choose a candidate, but your message rings loud and clear! Hopefully more would-be politicians will hear it and practice more ethical forms of voter communication.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Paper is one of the most reusable and sustainable products we have. Paper mills run on self-generated energy, and even support surrounding power grids.

    As for your landfill remark, in 2011 64% of paper consumed in the U.S. was recovered for recyling. The recovery rate for metal is 35%, Glass is 28% and plastic is 8%.

    I don’t understand why people think paper is bad. It’s 100% recyclable. Can’t say that about the computer you wrote this article on. There are 750 million acres of forests in the U.S. (The same as 100 years ago).

    The cloud, and internet are powered by data centers, which are powered by coal plants. Computers and mobile devices attribute 407 million tons of Carbon Dioxide Emission equivalent. For every ton of wood a forest produces, it removes 1.47 ton of carbon dioxide from the air and replaces it with 1.07 ton of oxygen. Looking a little “greener” now don’t you think?

    So it may not seam like you are hurting the environment when you use your ipad or iphone or go online, but its doing more than a piece of recycled paper postcard you get in your mailbox, that when you recycled is used for some other paper product.

    • Paper is a good and very useful resource and recycling makes a huge difference. I disagree that paper mills run on “self-generated energy” and would like to see some factual documentation on that if you have it.

      The amount of old-growth forest is miniscule and tree farms are barren mono-crops in comparison. It is also not sustainable to harvest anything from the land forever without replacing essential minerals and nutrients. They are lost with each harvest and will eventually disappear. Much of the world’s deserts were once verdant forests, now lost forever.

      I agree that computers and data centers also exact a toll, but my column was not about that. I happen to run a successful web design and hosting company that is completely carbon neutral. Every minute of computer use in my home and office is powered by renewable energy. It is all about the choices we make.

      It is easy to justify all sort of things, especially those activities we take for granted because they’re what we’ve grown up with. When viewed in the bigger picture though, there are significant problems that must be acknowledged if we wish to face reality.

      One of the primary issues is loss of biodiversity and junk mail is a major contributor (a tree farm is not nearly as rich in biological diversity as a mature, old-growth forest). I offer this recent article as but one of many excellent scientific resources on the topic: Ecosystem Effects of Biodiversity Loss Could Rival Impacts of Climate Change, Pollution

      The bottom line is that people who actually want to receive unsolicited mail from companies trying to sell them everything from vacations to credit card debt are welcome to do so. There are many, I would guess the majority, that would prefer to have more control over the information they get in the mail, reducing waste, time and expense. I think the concept is called freedom. Isn’t that what this country is supposed to stand for?

  3. Nice article Steve; I’ve been using Catalog Choice for several years and it works – makes my wife mad though!

    • Thanks Rob and glad to hear CC is helping. I can only imagine your wife as someone as committed to living responsibly are you are!

      Perhaps you can find a neighbor willing to share catalogs that your wife might enjoy but no longer receives.

  4. Steve,

    There is also a lot of good that is afforded from the junk mail and as accredited before, recycling is great and what is a shame is that there is not a law to recycle.

    Junk mail provides jobs for the printers and distributers (can’t be made in China though), too bad.

    Without junk mail the post office would either go broke or have to double our rates.

    Unlike you, at least 50% of the reciepients of the so called junk mail are not computer or internet literate such as you are. The folks welcome the grocery store add papers so they can shop for bargins. By the way this helps with polution by keeping them from driving from store to store to FIND the best buys.

    I know of seniors who look forward to their junk mail because it gives them something to look forward to.

    I think this is enough for now.

    This is one of the few times that I disagree with you.

    • As it currently exists in our culture, junk mail is an invasive and extremely destructive practice. If people could voluntarily choose to OPT IN for direct marketing, that would be fine. To force it upon everyone and make those who do NOT want it spend many wasted hours trying to stop is it wrong, unfair and unethical.

      Jobs? Please spare me the twisted logic! Should we have more prisons because they create jobs? How many precious jobs will we have left after our ecosystem collapses and society fails due to our over-consumptive habits?

      Do you even understand the habitat destruction that takes place daily so you can clip coupons for WalMart? We are in the midst of a man-made and very severe extinction event. Destroying old-growth forests for pulp is part of the problem. It is a form of insanity.

      The post office should charge more money for the mail it delivers. If junk mailers had to pay the real cost, the post office would make MORE money, no less. Those who don’t want to pay the truth don’t have to – they can stop the destruction.

      Seniors or those who don’t use computers can opt in all they want. It is a small minority, believe me.

      I’m not interested in taking anything away from those who want it, but I will continue to fight to preserve our biosphere for those who deserve it most, the children and unborn who will come after us and the millions of other species who deserve to be here at least as much as we do. We must stop being so damn selfish.

  5. cherie says:

    another winner. have you used: dmachoice.org

    ~ c