Let’s Ban Junk Mail Already

We waste paper on mail that nobody wants. Time to change that.

By Juhea Kim

July 14, 2019


Photo by AndreyPopov/iStock

Today’s environmental problems—like climate change, deforestation, and species loss—are so big that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the threats. But what if, instead of being intimidated by the scope of the changes needed to create a sustainable society, we focused on some small-scale changes? Here’s one modest environmental reform that would require little investment but would help avoid millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year and protect wildlife: Let’s ban junk mail. 

According to the Center for Development of Recycling at San Jose State University, an American adult receives 41 pounds of junk mail a year. To produce this much paper requires cutting down somewhere between 80 million and 100 million trees annually. If left standing, these trees would absorb 1.7 million tons of CO2 a year.  

The World Wildlife Fund reports that over 40 percent of all industrial wood is turned into a paper product, making paper production the second-largest use of logged wood after building materials. Logging virgin forests in places like Indonesia for pulp and paper contributes to global climate change and, at the same time, threatens the integrity of some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. But the devastation caused by paper mills in poorer nations is no more destructive than what’s happening in the southeastern United States—the top pulp-producing region in the world.

The net gain in forest cover in the United States during the past century has been used to tout the sustainability of American forestry. But according to a report by the Dogwood Alliance, between 2006 and 2010, the US forestry industry emitted an equivalent of 580 metric tons of CO2, an amount larger than the emissions produced each year from commercial and residential buildings. Measured by carbon footprint, logging is five times as bad for the environment as conversion, wildfire, wind, pests, and tree mortality put together. This is because replacing natural forests with monoculture tree plantations results in a carbon deficit. Mature trees release around 55 percent of sequestered carbon almost immediately upon cutting. They are then replaced by fast-growing, short-rotation trees, which are harvested relatively quickly and have low long-term sequestration potential. As such, tree plantations’ utility as a carbon sink is greatly overestimated. 

Not only does a tree plantation lack the climate-stabilizing benefit of a natural, protected forest, it also doesn’t serve as a habitat for endemic plant and animal species. “An industrial tree farm is not a forest,” said Danna Smith, executive director of Dogwood Alliance. “We have lost all of our old, intact forest landscapes.” Logging has contributed to the decline of many native species, from the Carolina northern flying squirrel to the critically endangered red wolf, which has just 40 individuals remaining in the wild. 

Cutting down trees to make paper has an especially intense environmental impact since short-lived paper products have a higher carbon footprint than long-lasting wood products such as hardwood floors and furniture. A 2016 study funded by NASA found that the production of pulpwood leads to the highest forest carbon release out of all wood products. 

And one of the shortest-lived of any paper product is direct mail, a.k.a. “junk mail”—the flood of unsolicited mail like catalogs, promotional materials, and requests for donations that clogs up your mailbox. For most people, these mailings produce little value but lots of annoyance. (Who among us hasn’t been inundated with credit card applications we don’t need?) An estimated 44 percent of junk mail is thrown away unopened.  

In the grand scheme of things, junk mail may be a relatively minor environmental issue. But it’s the sort of rare environmental problem for which a solution seems doable.  

“Any policy that outlaws harmful practices is a good thing,” Margaret Klein Salamon, founder and director of The Climate Mobilization, told me regarding the merits of a junk-mail ban. “We need a paradigm shift in environmental and climate policy, and banning wasteful and destructive activities is the right approach as opposed to incentivizing. Nothing is more effective.” 

Salamon likened the idea of banning junk mail to the recent raft of local-government bans on plastic straws and corporate promises to phase out plastic straws. By weight, plastic straws make up just 0.022 percent of plastic waste. Yet they have become something of an environmental lightning rod because they are so ubiquitous: In the United States alone, some 500 million straws are used every day, according to one estimate. By targeting something that most people don’t really need, the plastic straw bans have provided anti-plastics campaigners with a way to raise larger issues about sustainability and waste. As Kate Melges of Greenpeace told a Seattle news station after the city’s ordinance went into effect, straw bans are about “really taking a stand on what needs to happen—a ban on all single-use plastic products.” 

Similarly, junk mail is a small fraction of all paper waste in the United States; using that 41 pounds of per capita junk mail a year figure, direct mail is about 6 percent of annual US paper waste. Like straws, junk mail is unnecessary—despised even. A campaign against junk mail offers a way to address larger questions about paper waste. 

But there’s one key difference between bans or fees on plastic straws and plastic bags and trying to ban junk mail. Since direct mail goes through, well, the mail, it’s a kind of interstate commerce, and likely any ban or restriction on junk mail would have to be put in place by Congress. And that’s a longshot. 

Still, the time may be right for promoting a junk-mail ban—especially if a ban were put into the context of the increasing demand for privacy rights, and the current wave of online data protection that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. If Facebook can’t sell your data to third parties, as some advocates are proposing, why should data brokers be allowed to sell your name and address without your consent? “The buying and selling of marketing lists is invasive. We should be able to say no,” said Alan Durning, founder and executive director of Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based environmental think tank. Durning argued that advertisers don’t have the right to solicitation. “The First Amendment protects free speech around matters of public affairs but doesn't apply to commercial speech, which is regulated differently,” he said.  

Durning pointed out that countries such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Canada already enforce junk-mail restrictions. A US policy could be modeled on Canada's, where people simply put a “No Junk Mail” or “Addressed Mail Only” sticker on their mailbox. Another idea is to establish a Do Not Mail Registry similar to the Do Not Call Registry that was established with huge public support and bipartisan backing in 2003.  

Until there is some kind of binding national restriction on junk mail, you can help cut down on junk mail yourself by using a free service like CatalogChoice to at least cut down on the number of unsolicited catalogs you receive. But, as Durning found during a decade-long crusade to clean out his own mailbox, trying to stop junk mail on a personal level is a Sisyphean task. Ultimately, “fighting junk mail as an individual is not practical,” Durning said. “We need policies.”  

If a national ban on junk mail seems impossible, just remember this: Many people once said the same thing about plastic straw bans. 

Editor’s Note/Disclosure: The Sierra Club relies on direct mail marketing for its membership and supporter solicitations. The organization also insists on the highest standards of sustainability for the papers and ink used in our mailings. The paper used is of the highest level of recycled or post-consumer waste percentage that can be found on the open market, and should be FSC- or SFI-certified. Envelope windows use a film made from a wood pulp byproduct and are recyclable. The Sierra Club contracts with printers that use environmentally friendly inks, typically soy-based ones.

In recent years, the Sierra Club has also made new investments in attracting donors and supporters via digital channels such as email and social media, which allows us to avoid paper use. An increasing percentage of our supporters are monthly donors; consistent support from monthly donors is another way of reducing the need to send out direct-mail solicitations.

It is also Sierra Club policy to give donors easy opportunities to opt out from having their names and address rented or exchanged with other organizations. These opt-out messages appear on all donation reply forms and online donation pages. At any time, Sierra Club members can opt out from receiving future communications by email, physical mail, or phone.