GreenTech LogoIt's hard to get companies to stop sending junk mail and catalogs, but it is a colossal waste of paper. Here are some practical things that nonprofits, businesses, and consumers can do about reducing all the junk paper cluttering their offices.

Why Opt Out?

Getting rid of junk mail is worthwhile not only for sanity sake, but also has a huge environmental cost. According to the San Francisco-based nonprofit, Forest Ethics, more than 100 billion pieces of junk mail are delivered in the U.S. each year, which is roughly one-third of all the mail delivered in the world. An estimated 44% of that junk mail is thrown away unopened.

This volume of paper wastes 100 million trees annually and releases yearly greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 9.3 million cars, or the energy it takes to heat 12.9 million homes.

One important thing that organizations can do is to reduce or completely stop your paper-based direct mailings. I know it's easier said than done, and it's something we have been working on at TechSoup, where we have, in the past, sent a catalog of all of our donated and discounted product offerings to our membership. Our catalog is now only available in a digital form, but it took us years to switch formats. You can find a digital version of recent products here, in addition to visiting the Get Products section of our site.

Do Not Mail Registries?

When I first posted on this topic in 2010 there was not a single, universal "Do Not Mail Registry" for opting out of receiving junk mail in the United States or internationally. At least in the United States, nonprofits, businesses, and individual consumers can now go to a website or make a toll-free call and either opt out of getting unsolicited credit card or insurance offers for five years or permanently. It doesn't get rid all junk mail, but certainly some of the most irritating mail.

The information is actually on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Consumer Protection website. There is now a service called Opt Out Prescreen.com that is run by the consumer credit companies, Equifax, Experian, Innovis, and TransUnion. These are the companies that are permitted to include your name on lists used by creditors or insurers to make offers of credit or insurance that are not initiated by you ("Firm Offers").

They operate under under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which also provides you the right to "Opt-Out," which prevents Consumer Credit Reporting Companies from providing your credit file information for unsolicited financial offers, which includes lots of junk mail.

The process is pretty simple. You go to Opt Out Prescreen.com and then click on a big button that says "click here to opt in or opt out." You can also call toll-free 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688). When you call or visit the website, you'll be asked to provide certain personal information, including your home telephone number, name, Social Security number, and date of birth. The information you provide is confidential and will be used only to process your request to opt out. I'm never crazy about giving out my Social Security number, but in this case it seems okay and legitimate to ensure you're unsubscribed from lists.

Opt Out of Catalogs and Direct Mail

In regard to paper catalogs, there are thousands of direct mailing companies and contacting them all would be nearly impossible. However, the closest thing I found to a silver bullet is the nonprofit service, 41pounds.org, which promises to completely remove you from up to 95 percent of the junk mail lists by contacting each organization from which you receive mail and/or catalogs for a one-time fee of $41 for five years.

If it's any comfort, other countries don't seem to be doing great on this either. The UK nonprofit, Junkbuster.org.uk provides a similar array of manual strategies for getting rid of junk mail.

Here are some methods to reduce the amount of junk mail you get:

  • The Forest Ethics Junk Mail Opt Out Form allows you to contact some of the largest direct marketers by generating 17 ready-to-mail requests to different direct mail companies. DoNotMail creates a PDF document with all 17 letters ready to print and send. If you don't want to enter your personal info into a random site, you can use fake data and then download the PDF document for a reference to create your own letters.
  • The Direct Marketing Association has a new online direct mail preference service called DMA Choice. There are lots of dead links on the web to their old mail preference service that used to be at http://www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offmailinglist, and apparently provided a simple form to fill out. Their new DMA Choice service is much less convenient. First it takes you to their Direct Mail 101 landing page, which provides the direct mail industry's perspective (that direct mail is a valuable service to everyone) plus a link to their email preference service and their new direct mail preference service in which you sign up for a DMA Choice account and then manually contact catalog companies, magazines, and others one company at a time. There's also a credit card opt out form. 
  • Yellow Pages Opt Out is service by the Yellow Pages Association. Unlike the Direct Marketing Association it is a refreshingly straightforward process for not having those huge ,obsolete ad books delivered to your doorstep. The site is also useful for finding out how to recycle yellow pages.
  • Opt-Out Prescreen allows you to opt out of receiving credit card and insurance offers. Call 1-888-567-8688 from your home telephone, or visit their website.
  • Acxiom U.S is a big marketing firm that serves several fortune 500 companies. They offer an online opt out form.
  • Publishers Clearinghouse sends their contest junk mail to nearly every U.S. household. Email your removal request to privacychoices@pchmail.com.
  • Val-Pak is another universal junk mailer of coupons. They offer a mail suppression form.
  • Catalog Choice is a free online service whose mission is to reduce the number of unwanted catalog mailings and to promote the adoption of sustainable industry best practices. The project provides a Catalog Choice Mail Preference Service to both consumers and businesses, and allows you to get catalogs you actually do want in digital format.

For tips on how to deal with business junk mail, see the National Waste Prevention Coalition's Reduce Business Junk Mail website. How do you deal with junk mail? Share your experience on cleaning up and greening up your office in the comments below.