Every week the U.S. Postal Service drops 14 pieces of junk mail into the average American mailbox. There is a way to stem the deluge.
by Brendon Bosworth
The mailbox is full again this week. But it holds no missives from friends in far off places. The handwritten letter from Daniel, a terminal seafarer, describing the highs of port life in Tahiti, is markedly absent. Instead, the box bulges with a storm of papers. A catalog from Victoria’s Secret for the woman who doesn’t live here vies for attention, desperately trying to edge out a local dentist’s flyer that sports an airbrushed couple with impossibly white teeth and uncomfortable grins.
This is the white noise of the mail service: a torrent of messages directly marketed to me, and the faceless tenants who once rented here, in the vain hope that someone will respond with a willing credit card.
Every week the Postal Service peppers every household mailbox in America with an average of 14 pieces of junk mail. This amounts to 83.5 billion pieces a year, or 59 percent of all household mail delivered in the nation. As the era of hand scribbled communications nears extirpation and banks and other institutions switch to electronic correspondence, junk mail helps keep the flailing service, which reported a $5.1 billion loss last year and could soon cut 35,000 jobs, afloat. In 2010, the money generated from delivering junk mail made up 26 percent of the service’s total revenue.
“The mailbox is the number one, largest marketing channel in America,” says Chuck Teller, executive director of Californian nonprofit Catalog Choice. But unlike television where people can flick channels when ads are irksome, or emails that have an unsubscribe option, consumers have less control over unwanted mail, he explains.
Teller’s organization provides a platform for users to choke their junk mail supplies. Users register an account online and pick which companies they don’t want to receive mail from, while Teller and his staff work to ensure that businesses adhere to these opt-out requests according to their own privacy policies.
Teller says Catalog Choice, which has executed almost 21.8 million opt-out requests for about 1.5 million users since its inception in 2007, will follow up with the Federal Trade Commission if a company repeatedly fails to honor an opt-out submission.
The organization’s free service enables users to stop receiving junk mail and phone books. For a $20 annual fee account holders can use Mailstop Shield, which stops ominously termed “data brokers” from peddling customers’ contact information to other companies.
Last August, Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycling organization in Boulder, Colorado, partnered with Catalog Choice to offer Boulder County residents both services at no cost.
Junk mail is one of those things everyone has a problem with, says Leigh Cushing, Eco-Cycle’s community campaigns coordinator, during an interview at a faded wooden table outside her office, which is housed in a modest gray prefab at Eco-Cycle’s Center for Hard to Recycle Materials on the east side of town.
Every few minutes a car cruises through the center’s entrance. People step out and unload unwanted goods that don’t belong in curbside recycling bins. There is a place for most societal byproducts here: mobile phones, toilets, fabrics, fire extinguishers and cooking oil, among others.
Almost 65 percent of the junk mail produced annually is recycled, according to 2009 data from the Environmental Protection Agency. And while recycling unwanted paper is a good start, Cushing would prefer to see less junk mail in circulation.
“We’re still cutting down trees to create junk mail, even though it’s recycled and we can use it again. If we can stop the junk mail problem then we can stop cutting down trees in the first place,” she says.
It’s unlikely that junk mail volumes will be quelled any time soon. Last week, in an effort to boost revenues, the Postal Service launched a new marketing campaign to attract clients to a service known as “Every Door Direct Mail,” which allows small businesses to blanket specific neighborhoods with unaddressed mail at a cost of just 14.5c a piece. The service aims to generate up to $800 million from the campaign this year, reports CNN Money.
While junk mail is ubiquitous its effectiveness doesn’t seem that impressive. A letter-sized piece of direct mail typically garners a 3.4 percent response rate from people who have bought from a company before and just a 1.4 percent response rate from prospective clients, according to a report from trade group the Direct Marketing Association.
However, since direct mail is affordable to produce and deliver it tends to provide a good return on investment and is still a popular form of marketing, explains Yoram Wurmser, the association’s director of marketing and media insights, over the phone from New York.
While junk mail brings in money for the Postal Service and is a cheap way for businesses to advertise, Teller maintains that people have the right not to receive it.
“You didn’t ask for this mail to come to your house. You should be able to stop it,” he says.