Of recent much has been written about the impact of plastic on the environment but it is not only plastic that is a cause for concern, there is a growing waste paper mountain too, which junk mail massively contributes to. Some days I receive more junk mail than actual mail, so recently I have been on a mission to do my little bit of good in the world, learn what I can do to receive less of this and encourage others to do the same.
What is junk mail
Junk mail is marketing material, say letters, catalogues, leaflets, coupons and menus that are posted to individuals, who are usually selected because they are in a certain demographic. Businesses may also be the recipients of junk mail.
The word junk is recorded by Etymology Online as ‘mid-14c., junke “old cable or rope,” cut in bits and used for caulking, etc., a nautical word of uncertain origin, also used figuratively as a type of something of little value. Junk food is from 1971; junk art is from 1961; junk mail first attested 1954; junk bond from 1979.’
In the UK 17.5 billion pieces of junk mail are produced every year with 650 pieces of junk mail posted through the average British letterbox and on average 80 pieces of addressed junk mail are sent out to the 583,000 people who die every year following their death. To produce all this junk mail 550,000 tonnes of paper and 16.5 billion litres of water are used.
The history of paper
Paper was invented in AD105 in ancient China and involved mixing cloth, bark and nets with water to form a paste, then flattening it out to dry in the sun. Initially it was only used for wrapping precious objects but within 650 years, printing had arrived and the first books, playing cards and toilet paper soon followed. It took more than a thousand years to arrive in Europe, so people had to use the skins of calves, goats and sheep as parchment.
In the computer age, you might think there is no longer a need for paper but while there has been a small decline in the demand for newspapers and books, the paper industry is booming. The world currently uses around 400 million tonnes of paper per year – think money, cardboard boxes, receipts, coffee cups, post it notes, baking paper, egg cartons, birthday cards, straws and wrapping paper. As we turn our backs on single use plastic, paper is one of the main contenders to take its place.
What’s the problem?
You may be reading this and thinking what’s all the fuss about, how much effort is it to put junk mail in the recycling bin, so here’s the science bit.
Recycling is all well and good but recycling lorries and recycling plants require fuel to run. There is an environmental impact when creating, packing and transporting junk mail and the impact of consuming the energy to print the materials too. One study found the global paper industry eats up around 6.4 exajoules (EJ) of energy each year, that’s enough to make some 87 trillion cups of tea.
Today the process of making paper starts with raw wood. This comes from softwood trees such as spruce, pine and fir and some hardwoods such as eucalyptus. Each piece of junk mail is a tree that has been felled and each year, the global paper industry is fed by more than 100 million hectares of forests, which is an area around the same size as Egypt. While much paper is sourced from sustainably managed forests, some is made from trees in ecologically important forests, contributing to loss of biodiversity. In countries where forests are not sustainably managed, important habitats can be destroyed.
Almost every phase of paper manufacturing involves water. To make a single sheet of A4 paper, you need between two and 13 litres of water. And the pulping process, involves cooking the wood used in a bath of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphide, before chlorine dioxide is added to bleach the pulp and achieve a white colour. After the pulping and bleaching is over, paper mills end up with a cocktail which must be treated so that it can be disposed of safely but some paper mills discharge this directly into the water supply, where it is toxic to fish and other wildlife.
In addition, there are paper shortages globally due to the demand for paper, disruptions caused by lockdowns and border closures have created a break in shipping cycles and there are soaring energy prices too. So whether sending our junk mail to landfill or recycling it, there is a cost to all of us and it is essential we all do what we can to learn how to deal with our own waste.
Tired of junk mail? Here’s what can you do
Mailing preference service
Individuals can register with the Mailing Preference Service (MPS) to have their details removed from direct marketing mailing lists. The MPS covers around 90 per cent of mailing lists but it should be noted, it is not designed to stop unaddressed items of mail, direct mail delivered to the door, mail addressed to the ‘occupant’, ‘resident’ or ‘homeowner’ or the delivery of free newspapers.
In addition, the MPS Suppression File is intended for consumers (not businesses) at their residential address in the United Kingdom (including the Channel Islands and Isle of Man). Direct Mailers are not obliged to screen business lists against the MPS. If you are a business wanting to stop junk mail from another business, you should contact the business directly.
Royal Mail are legally obliged to deliver all addressed mail, which includes mail that is addressed ‘To the Occupier’ (or with any other generic recipient information), as well as mail that is personally addressed to you by name.
Opting out from Royal Mail Door to Door stops all unaddressed items from being delivered (although they work with government to get a message to every UK address in exceptional circumstances where delivery of the message is deemed to be in the national interest.) An opt out lasts for a maximum of two years at which time you will need to complete a new form. It isn’t possible to put an opt out in place against a particular address indefinitely, because occupiers of properties may change from time to time.
Note that you need to download the opt out form and sign and return it to the address shown on the form. Many websites detail an email address where the form can be sent but having tried this myself and not seeing a reduction in junk mail, I learned from Royal Mail, that the email address is unmanned.
Postal Review Panel
Should you continue to receive junk mail after opting out with Royal Mail, you can contact the Postal Review Panel. Sitting outside of the Royal Mail Customer Services team, the Postal Review Panel is for customers who are unhappy with either the way their complaint has been handled or with the responses they have received.
Opting out of other unaddressed mail deliveries
To opt out of other unaddressed mail deliveries you can register with the ‘Your Choice’ preference service run by the Data and Marketing Association.
Opting out of charity appeal communications
The Fundraising Preference Service can help members of the public control the communications they receive from charities. By registering your details with the Fundraising Preference Service you can choose to stop email, telephone calls, addressed post and/or text messages addressed to you personally from charities.
Contact your electoral registration office
Search for your local electoral registration office on Gov.UK and ask them to take your details off the ‘open register’ which is a list of people and addresses that can be bought and used for sending junk mail. You can also choose for your details not to be added to the edited electoral register when you fill out an electoral registration form. Tick the box that says ‘opt out’ of the open register.
Put a sign on your door or letterbox
Try putting a ‘no junk mail’ sign on your door. Some organisations may not consider their mail to be junk so be specific and write ‘No commercial leaflets, no free newspapers, no junk mail, no charity bags.’
Contact the sender directly
If an organisation is never told you don’t want to receive their mail, they will continue to send it to you. Write to them directly, including your full name and address and the sentence ‘Please stop processing my personal data for direct marketing purposes in accordance with Article 21 of the General Data Protection Regulations.’
Return the junk mail directly to the sender
Cross out your address and write ‘unsolicited mail, please return to sender’ on the envelope. You won’t have to pay postage for the return but the sender will receive a return charge.
- BBC Future: How paper is making a comeback
- Commons Library: Preventing unsolicited junk mail
- Etymology Online: Junk
- Zero Waste Europe: Zero Junk Mail in Europe
Further information and sources
- BBC: Why China doesn’t want your waste anymore
- Environmental Paper Network: the state of the global paper industry 2018
- Eurostats: Packaging waste statistics
- McKinsey and Company: Pulp, paper, and packaging in the next decade
- Paperstone: What’s happening to the paper supply chain in 2022
- Stop junk mail
- The bereavement register: Helping to stop unwanted direct mail to the deceased
- The world counts: Paper comes from trees
- Yale Environment 360: How China’s ban on importing waste has stalled global recycling
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