De-Cluttering Your Mailbox

All those catalogs and credit-card offers kill a lot of trees. But new websites can help reduce unwanted snail mail

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Remember when going through the mail was a thrill? These days Americans get an average of 18 pieces of junk mail for every personal letter. From catalogs to credit-card solicitations, our mailboxes are increasingly clogged with clutter. Dealing with unwanted mail not only wastes our time (eight months over the average lifespan) but also bears environmental costs. Paper spam eats up an estimated 100 million trees each year, with 44% of junk mail ending up--unopened--in landfills.

To address the problem, Forest Ethics, a San Francisco--based environmental group, has launched a national Do Not Mail campaign, modeled on the successful Do Not Call Registry. So far, 19 states have debated Do Not Mail proposals. But none has passed--and who knows if any ever will. Will Craven, a spokesman for Forest Ethics, says that's partly because marketers pour millions of dollars--and lobbying savvy--into manipulating our mail: "We now have a runaway supply of junk in the face of shrinking and even resentful demand." (See TIME's special report on the environment.)

One reason politicians may be unlikely to declare war on direct mail is that it yields an estimated $646 billion a year in sales. (The magazine industry, including TIME Inc., which publishes TIME, makes frequent use of direct mail.) "Mail works," says Don McKenzie, CEO of Direct Group, a direct-marketing company. "It's one of the best advertising methods out there." Which means that free-market solutions are likely to remain your best ally in combatting mailbox mess.

A slew of new services aim to give you at least some control over what mail you receive. One of the most popular, focuses on ridding your mailbox of unwanted catalogs. You tell the nonprofit which ones you want to stop getting, and the site will contact mailers on your behalf. More than a million people have signed up since the free service was launched last year, and it has no doubt lightened many a mailbox. But the site isn't perfect. For starters, some companies simply ignore its entreaties. Others beg you to let them send at least one catalog a year.

And if having to give Catalog Choice your customer numbers from umpteen mailing labels sounds a little too labor-intensive, you can pay to do the grunt work for you. CEO Pankaj Shah justifies GreenDimes' $20 annual fee by pledging to reduce your junk mail 90% within 90 days--by pulling your name off a broad range of lists--and to follow up monthly to make sure you stay off those lists. In terms of eliminating paper waste, this service beats Catalog Choice in that it's more comprehensive--and quicker--in its clutter-clearing.

But if $20 seems like a lot of green, is the most comprehensive free service. Type in your name and address, and the site lets you opt out of credit-card solicitations, catalogs, Valpak coupons, sweepstakes announcements and other postal plaque. In addition to eliminating unwanted mail, the company plans to generate ad revenue by letting consumers specify the kind of offers they actually want to receive. What a novel concept.

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