habit shift: junk mail.

March 16, 2016

habit shift: junk mail | reading my tea leaves
The problem with habits is that everyone has them. And while we might be able to change our own habits, it’s harder to change other people’s habits. Foiled again.

Many companies and organizations have the particularly bad habit of flooding mailboxes with unsolicited advertisements in the form of direct mail. Donor solicitations and special offers clamor for our attention. On a weekly basis our mailbox is filled with flyers, postcards, and multi-paged documents complete with credit cards that no one asked for. Book-sized catalogs arrive unannounced from companies who we’re certain we never ordered from (a particularly jarring offense when you live in an apartment building and see a towering stack of the thick volumes). It’s a problem for the environment and a problem for our homes. Inside it creates unwanted clutter and mess; outside it ransacks resources and then ends up in landfills. 

Here are a few galling numbers to put things in perspective *:

  • 100 million trees are cut down each year to produce junk mail.
  • According to EPA estimates, only 40% of junk mail is recycled.
  • 1.7 million tons of junk mail ends up in landfills each year.

There’s nothing like returning home from a week away to put your junk mail problem into perspective. I’d thought I was pretty on top of it. I had my account with Catalog Choice all set up. I’m discerning about giving out my mailing address. I opt out of receiving catalogs whenever given the clear choice. And yet: these kinds of things require maintenance. And when we returned home from California last week our mailbox was full to bursting, mostly with utter and complete junk. It was depressing. And so I’m on a renewed kick.habit shift: junk mail | reading my tea leaves

A few quick tips for keeping junk mail under control:

  1. Stop giving out your zip code at the register. We’ve all been there: Making an innocuous purchase at a point-of-sale when the peppy sales clerk asks for our zip code. I’m the first to admit that it’s awkward to refuse to comply. It’s not, after all, the cheery clerk’s decision to ask for your zip, it’s surely company policy. But with the five-digit zip code, coupled with the name on your credit card, the store is able to capture your mailing address and to use it for marketing purposes (read: junk mail). If you do give your zip, expect a catalog in the near future. (Here’s an in-depth article with details about how this works.)

  2. Sign up for an account with Catalog Choice. Unfortunately, unsubscribing from direct mail mailings isn’t as easy as the digital equivalent available from a site like unroll.me. But with a little patience and a little time, Catalog Choice can help curb the amount of junk mail coming in. Here’s how: The site allows you to search for a company or organization name and will direct you to one of a few ways to get yourself off their list. In some cases, it’s as simple as entering your address and clicking a few buttons. In other cases, companies require a little more legwork. In these instances, Catalog Choice helps you draft an email with standard language asking for your name to be removed. I’m not going to say it’s an easy solution. But it is a solution. 

  3. Register with DMAchoice. It might feel a bit like getting into bed with the enemy, but registering with the Direct Mail Association’s DMAchoice in addition to opening a Catalog Choice account is a good idea to ensure that your bases have been covered. For both Catalog Choice and DMAchoice, it’s nice to have a running list of the usual suspects that end up in your mailbox so you can give clear directions for what you don’t want to receive.

  4. Register as a user when you shop online. If you go through the effort of unsubscribing from catalogs through Catalog Choice, make sure your hard work doesn’t get undone the next time you make a purchase online. A lot of companies will add your name back to their list if you register as a guest when you check out of their online shop. I’d always felt like registering as a guest was preserving a bit of my privacy, but it turns out not to be so. If you don’t like to give out your email when you shop online, you might want to create a dedicated account to use only for online shopping.

  5. Never let it come inside. This isn’t about stopping junk mail, it’s about dealing with it when it inevitably gets sent. Don’t bring it in. It sounds simple enough, but I read posts on a regular basis encouraging folks to have an inbox, or a special basket for corralling catalogs et cetera. I think the idea is noble, but I think the reality is an overflowing, messy basket that doesn’t get much attention anyway and becomes another source of clutter in your home. I say recycle directly. A caveat: I’m so good at leaving catalogs in the recycling bins outside, that I’d kind of stopped realizing the number of them that were still coming in on a weekly basis. If you have a bad junk mail problem (and you probably do), let it build up for a week or two (take a vacation!?) and then spend some time doing a massive unsubscribe session (see #2 & #3).  Being able to enter specifics from the companies that have you on their lists will help your unsubscribe efforts be much (much) more effective.

Whaddyathink? Any genius tips I’ve missed?

*Numbers from Catalog Choice

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  • Reply Angela Storm March 16, 2016 at 9:27 am

    Not on the junk mail front, but I try and make sure we are signed up for paperless statements from monthly billing companies, like our mortgage or student loans. If I continue to get mail after I’ve signed up for the electronic service, I try and contact the company and ask that they honor my paperless request by ceasing to send paper statements. (It’s astonishing the number of companies who continue to send paper statements after you’ve requested otherwise.)

    Anyway, great post! I’m going to check out that Catalog Choice site.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 10:15 am

      Oh, totally! Paperless e’erything!

  • Reply Heather Cox March 16, 2016 at 9:49 am

    http://www.optoutprescreen.com is a website where you can opt out of credit card offers permanently or temporality (5 years).

  • Reply Jessie March 16, 2016 at 9:50 am

    Seriously. It is like you are reading my mind with these posts. I had been using this great app for getting me off of mailing lists then it started charging and then my stack of junk mail became increasingly huge. I kept forgetting to research alternatives to help eliminate the junk. Thank you! AH and the zip code thing at the register. I had NO idea. Thank you for the insight! Please keep reading my mind. 🙂

  • Reply Heather Cox March 16, 2016 at 9:50 am

    oops temporarily*

  • Reply Lauren March 16, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Love this habit shift! Cutting back on junk mail is an ongoing struggle, but I’ve followed all the tips you mention for years, and the days when my mailbox is empty, or contains only a sweet piece of mail from a friend are so rewarding! Catalog Choice works well in most cases, but I’ve also had success calling companies directly to get my name removed from mailing lists. One more suggestion: register your name with OptOutPrescreen (or write to the three major credit bureaus) to opt out of credit card solicitations. The website has options to allow you to opt out for five years or permanently. Keep up the habit shifts, Erin – love the series!

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 10:17 am

      Awesome tip! Thank you!

  • Reply Justine March 16, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Great advice.

    The biggest offender: those gross Restoration Hardware catalogs!

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 10:15 am

      Agreed. They got a special note from me 😉

  • Reply Angela March 16, 2016 at 10:06 am

    Cheers Erin for talking about this issue! We moved into a new home a year ago and inherited a mountain of junk mail from the previous owner. It has taken me until now to get it under control. One tip I will offer up along with your list is to call the company directly. This was sometimes -depending on the hold time to talk with a costumer service rep – the fastest way to get off their mailing list. If you ask directly they must comply. There’s a code on the catalog that they require and then once they put that # in they can remove your address immediatly. You are so right that this issue has become another thing we are forced to manage in our lives. Awareness and a little for thought can go a long way. I would rehurse in my mind while in line at a shop, ” Thank you, but actually I don’t give out my zip code.”

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 10:14 am

      Yes, agreed. Amazingly this is essentially how Catalog choice works: putting you in touch with the companies directly. They even provide the necessary language you need to be most effective and prompt you to fill in the customer code you mention!

  • Reply Allison March 16, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Thank you so much for this post! My husband and I have recently just started fighting the battle against Junk Mail, and we felt like we were losing horribly. We’ll have to try these tips out.

  • Reply Clare March 16, 2016 at 10:18 am

    This is SO timely! I’m haunted by Crate & Barrel at home and work; my tiny Brooklyn mail slot is not up to the task. SHOCKED by the tip about registering as a user . Mega-helpful!

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 10:19 am

      Yes: but the caveat is that you need to be a user who has ALSO opted out of the catalog! Just want to make sure that’s clear!

      • Reply Clare March 16, 2016 at 10:35 am

        Ah gotcha. Just registered with Catalog Choice for the repeat offenders. Thank you for the tip!

  • Reply MissEm March 16, 2016 at 10:28 am

    Move to Canada! Obviously not the most helpful solution 😉 but when we live in the States our junk mail more than quadruples. It’s never been much of an issue in Canada. But these are great tips as my parents and in-laws do get inundated by junk mail attached to our names (we use their address for shipping sometimes).

  • Reply Sarah E March 16, 2016 at 10:29 am

    The most egregious mail we get is the mail sent to “Homeowner” or “Our Good Neighbor” that’s just ads for nearby pizza joints or 24-hr gyms or whatever. Can you opt out of those? That, plus insurance offers (State Farm is hankering after my husband like nobody’s business) and a weekly coupon/circular for local stuff makes up the bulk of our junk mail. Thank goodness we don’t get too much in the way of catalogs and things, but I never figured there was a way to get out of bulk mailings that target every address in a zipcode (rather than me, personally).

    • Reply Lauren March 16, 2016 at 11:44 am

      Opting out at DMA Choice should take care of a lot of those generic mailings, and Catalog Choice also allows you to use multiple names, so you can put “homeowner” or “neighbor” in the name field for these. And try calling state farm (and other smaller local businesses) directly to get your name off of their mailing list – I’ve done it successfully!

      • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 12:05 pm


    • Reply Nicole Brant February 24, 2017 at 1:59 pm

      My aunt works for State Farm and unfortunately, each agent has their own mailing list, so when you get those State Farm solicitations in the mail (we get tons, too) you have to call each individual agent’s office that is listed to get removed. It’s very tedious and annoying.

  • Reply SLG March 16, 2016 at 11:24 am

    Love all these suggestions! When the peppy sales clerk asks for my zip code / phone number / etc., I’ve found it works to just give a friendly smile, adopt the exact same polite & cheerful tone I’d use if they had kindly offered me a cup of coffee, and say “No thanks!” They haven’t actually offered me anything, but if I act as though they did, everyone feels just fine about it. 🙂

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 11:26 am

      Ha! Totally! My go to is: “No thanks, I’d rather not!” Smiling does the rest!

  • Reply Erin March 16, 2016 at 11:38 am

    I get junk mail for MY EX-HUSBAND whom I have been divorced from for over FIVE years. I bought my house in a DIFFERENT STATE, on my OWN, THREE years after our divorce. I have no fekkin’ clue WHY ON EARTH I get his junk mail.

    (I’m also quite annoyed by it as you can see).


    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 12:05 pm

      Oy. No fun.

  • Reply Kim March 16, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Funny article on a certain home decor direct mailer. This may finally motivate me to unsubscribe and stop the madness! http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/restoration-hardwares-mail-order-extravagance

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 12:05 pm

      Love this!

  • Reply Ris March 16, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    I am a teeny bit insane about junk mail. I have a google doc and I contact every single company directly (by email, comment box, or customer chat) to request they remove me from their mailing list. Then I copy that into my google doc with the date. That way I have a record of it and if they somehow sneak me back onto their mailing list I can say “Hi. I’ve already requested you remove me on this date and with this customer service person, etc.” That usually gets them to comply for life. It takes almost no time and has been pretty effective.

  • Reply Sheila March 16, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    I can’t say enough about the PaperKarma App for reducing junk mail! The previous owners of our house got a TON of junk mail and never changed their address (actually we were getting junk mail for a whole slew of previous tenants, it was nuts). I unsubscribed from almost 60 different catalogs, mailers, etc. using PaperKarma – it’s really easy, you just take a photo of the offending piece of mail, type in the recipient name and address (once you’ve added a recipient, then it is stored for next time), and click send. PaperKarma contacts the company on your behalf and normally within a few hours you’ll be able to see if you’ve been successfully unsubscribed. Works for almost everything (though not those pesky “homeowner” and “good neighbor” bulk mailings.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 12:35 pm


  • Reply Audrey @ The Thrifty Traveler CA March 16, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you! I recently started making a much larger effort to eliminate the extra waste we produce and junk mail was one of the things I wasn’t quite sure how to tackle!

  • Reply Steph March 16, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Greetings from the U.K!
    If you happen to be U.K based, I would recommend the following which are both free:

    Telephone Preference Service (TPS): http://www.tpsonline.org.uk/tps/index.html
    Mail Preference Service (MPS): http://www.mpsonline.org.uk/mpsr/

    You can also log previous residents of your home to the MPS which is great if you’re still getting junk mail addressed to the previous home owners.

  • Reply Louize March 16, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    In Belgium you can stick a “no junk mail” sticker on your letter box that helps reduce the amount of bumpf you receive… but it sounds like we get much less junk mail here than in the US.

  • Reply Olga March 16, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    ^^ Yes! In Sweden, too. You put a sticker on your mailbox saying “Ingen reklam, tack!” So easy.

    • Reply Rita Tocta March 16, 2016 at 8:13 pm

      Here in Portugal is like that too 🙂 there are free stickers offered by the government and the postal services.

      • Reply Brie @ A Slice of Brie March 16, 2016 at 10:49 pm

        I’m in Canada and I just put a piece of duct tape with the words “no junk mail please” inside our mail box and now we get nothing. It also made me realize how little actual mail we get now that we don’t have our box filling up with flyers every single day.

  • Reply Amanda March 16, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    I’m semi-new to the blog, so this may have been mentioned previously – but what does everyone do about dry cleaning waste? I spent about 40 minutes in my closet yesterday ‘unpackaging’ our freshly dry cleaned clothes and I wanted to cry when I looked at the pile of plastic and paper I had made. It was truly depressing. My husband and I both work long hours in offices with dress codes, so unfortunately, dry cleaning is a necessary luxury for us.

    Would love to hear from others about this!

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 1:50 pm

      Ah, indeed. We don’t dry-clean our clothes, but we do have them washed and dried by a local laundry (city life!). We get our “hang’dry” clothes back with metal hangers that I save until our next drop-off and return to the laundry. I wonder if you could ask for the laundry to hang everything in one bag? Or see if they’ll agree to go bag-less? Maybe bring a cloth clothes hanger of your own to protect freshly cleaned clothes? It might take a little wrangling but I bet you could ask for a little change here or there! Good luck!

    • Reply Emilie March 16, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      My husband is in the same situation you are, Amanda. I stopped in during the day – when it wasn’t busy – and asked if they
      would take back hangers and the said, “sure”. So when I drop off the clothes, I return the hangers. But you have me wondering
      if they need to put the plastic on the clothes ….. hmm. I may ask, after all, since I drop off and pick up, its not really likely the
      clothes are going to get too dirty on the ride home!

  • Reply Elizabeth March 16, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Wonderful post, Erin. Thank you! This is just a very small tip that is only applicable to some, but I’ll share it anyway…my husband and I both graduated from the same college and for years had been getting two copies of the alumni publication, one in his name and one in mine. Last year I called and requested that we only receive one for our household (we do enjoy reading it, so we didn’t want to opt out completely). Mail sure does add up!

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      Totally. Love this.

  • Reply KariM March 16, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    Living in Canada, we aren’t inundated with catalogues the way you are. The biggest offenders for me are the donation requests from charitable organizations. Even with doing all our donations online, I still have to contact each organization to get them to stop sending all that junk mail. As for the requests for my postal code at the checkout counter, I just say a cheery “no thank you” and that’s the end of it.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 2:46 pm

      Agreed. We get more mailings from local organizations than anything else. I’m sadly pretty certain that my address was sold to a list after a recent charitable donation.

  • Reply Gabrielle March 16, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    Definitely going to try these things. I had no idea about the zip code! That’s crazy sneaky of them. Won’t be giving that it any more.

    On a side note if you by chance celebrate Easter, I would love to know your thoughts and ideas for healthy and non-cluttery ways to fill Easter baskets/eggs. Or perhaps there are different more mindful traditions that can be started. I have a 1.5year and I’m struggling for ideas so far. This could be a wonderful post subject 😉

  • Reply cm March 16, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    I take great pleasure in removing myself from junk mail lists.

    The two egregious ones I deal with when I move are RedPlum and ValPack, which can be removed at these links:

    A good tip is to web search “[name of junk mail sender you want to escape} + unsubscribe”

    I also got rid of all credit card offers through the FTC:

  • Reply KP March 16, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    Interesting topic. My friend works at an agency that does advertising for nonprofits. “Junk mail” is still a vital part of their fundraising mission. Most of America considers mail to be a place where more “official” things arrive and therefore the “open rate” can be better in the mail than in a crowded email inbox. I am all for making your contact preferences clear to companies, but having junk mail go away entirely could be harmful in its own way.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 16, 2016 at 9:09 pm

      A conundrum! I also spent many years working at non-profits that relied on direct mail campaigns for donations. I think the key here is frequency of mailings, being mindful about producing environmentally friendly mailings, and allowing folks to opt-out easily.

  • Reply Monica March 17, 2016 at 2:04 am

    I’m in Australia & fortunately don’t receive a huge amount of addressed junk mail but we do get a heap of regular weekly brochures from all the supermarkets, take away food, pharmacies, sporting stores, furniture stores etc. To stop this I’ll be buying a ‘no junk mail’ sign to stick to my letterbox-the person delivering the brochures is then not allowed to put them in your letterbox. The amount of these brochures that i don’t even look at & put directly into my recycling bin is obscene. Not many of our stores ask for our postcode (zipcode) and when they do i think it’s for a different reason here because not many stores send out addressed catalogues-our privacy laws are different-i don’t think they can access our address this way fortunately.

    • Reply Suzanne September 6, 2016 at 3:01 am

      Yes I’m in Australia and I do this too. I very rarely have anything in my letterbox now that the ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker is on there. Only proper letters addressed to me….and bills :(. I do actually prefer to get the bills in paper form as I have had some issues with bills being diverted to my spam folder of my email in the past and almost didn’t pay them.

  • Reply Lexie March 17, 2016 at 3:02 am

    Great post. Junk mail is a terrible egregious waste of our precious resources. 15 years ago I got a “small” PO Box at my local post office. They do not deliver mailers or coupons , any large catalogs or advertisements to these small boxes. In a effort to enlighten offending companies I became very exact and professional in my contact with each and kept records of c all’s to verify with them again if needed. I worked with the post office to return any unsolicited mail. They return it for free and stamp refused on it. I stopped giving out my address or zip code. I never shop online nor do I shop at box stores and do not use any credit cards (yeah!!). I was able to completely eliminate junk mail! I know it takes effort but trees are precious and how great it is to me to know I reduced my footprint. I am proud I never get one catalog! The po box is reasonable cost and secure . It’s a win win because you have control and I am loath to get mail at home as to me it’s a open invitation for any and all junk as well as theft.

  • Reply Molly March 17, 2016 at 9:41 am

    So helpful! Thank you!

  • Reply Bri March 17, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Gah! We’ve bounced around a lot in the last few years and have previously used our parent’s address for mailings. Every time we see them, they bring us a stack of mail. It is always, always, always junk mail (why so many cc mailings??!). We keep telling them to recycle/toss/tear/whatever you gotta do, do it to it all, but the in-laws never listen. This post just inspired me to end the madness!! Thank you! Also, what are your thoughts on getting rid of past residents mail? Just enter their name under my account’s names? (feeling weird doing this?) We rent, so most of our junk mail is for this mysterious man who used to live here and the post office here can’t seem to follow simple instructions.

  • Reply Andrea March 18, 2016 at 2:53 am

    I live in Australia and I have a sign on my letterbox that states ‘no junk mail, please!’ Fulfils it’s purpose.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 18, 2016 at 10:31 am

      So intrigued by the sticker system! Sounds so convenient, but I wonder if it stops the production of the junk mail in the first place!

  • Reply Andrea March 18, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    The way I see it is if more people practiced this, it would send a strong message out to companies. It certainly makes my life more simple not having to deal with all that rubbish, and it helps to disconnect me from the trash that is consumer society as well.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 19, 2016 at 8:26 am

      Totally! Just curious if there’s a larger system behind the sticker that includes things like reports back to the companies/general data collection on how many folks use the stickers, etc. Would be so awesome to know if it was part of a comprehensive plan on the part of the postal service to reduce junk! Fascinated is all!

      • Reply Karen T. March 26, 2016 at 5:40 am

        I don’t think the postal service is going to want to reduce junk mail – – they make money from large direct mailings. Since more and more people aren’t using snail mail for cards, letter, or even bill paying, the post office relies on junk mail to stay in business. Darn!

        • Reply Erin Boyle March 27, 2016 at 6:03 pm

          Ha! Probably not.

  • Reply Meghan March 18, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    Regarding #5, the recommendation to not even bring junk mail inside: as someone mentioned above, you will often receive junk to multiple “names” at your address, so I found it helpful for about 2-3 months a few years ago to bring all the junk inside, straight to my desk and into a pile. Then I would sit down with that pile and unsubscribe each one of them through Catalog Choice, entering multiple names when needed (some of the cable companies were sending me ads at 3-4 different names in one week!) I kept a recycling bin under my desk, and as soon as something was unsubscribed it went straight into recycling. For the few which I couldn’t locate at Catalog Choice, PaperKarma was usually able to find them.

    After 2-3 months of diligent unsubscribing, and converting all my bills and statements to electronic delivery, I reached a point where I only needed to check my postal mail every week to 10 days, and only had 1-3 pieces in the mailbox – usually fliers from local food delivery places which respected no “unsubscribe” options.

    That was a glorious 2 years of no junk mail, then I moved and haven’t been able to achieve quite the same level of success that I did back then (local cable company, I’m glaring at you!)

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 19, 2016 at 8:24 am

      Hey there: totally understood! That’s why I included the caveat! Letting things build up for awhile, or keeping track of what you receive in another way, is a good way to tackle the problem head on!

  • Reply Nico March 22, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    I agree with you 100%. I do feel though that a lot of companies send junk mail to you regardless of a subscription or not. So I believe they are the once that strongly need to put in perspective the environmental aspects you pointed out as we can only do so little and they can do so much!

  • Reply E von Boxofpages July 21, 2016 at 12:03 am

    In Germany, appearantly like in other European countries, it’s common to stick “No ads, please” label on your mailbox. It also works with handwritten note. A lot of people do this and I think the junk mailer are also cutting the number to produce and distribute. It certainly doesn’t make sense to print, let say 50 per street if only 20 households don’t mind to receive junk mails. Smart companies always want to cut unnessecary costs.

  • Reply Michaela October 27, 2017 at 8:21 am

    In Canada, you have to catch the postman stuffing your mail in the slot – if you do, kindly ask them to remove all junk mail from your box # – they simply do this by placing a little red dot sticker inside the post box! And Hey, Presto – no more junk mail!! How much do you love that?? 🙂

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