I used to stand over my recycling bin when I sorted my mail. Most of it went right in there as soon as it left my mailbox. More still, like monthly statements telling me how much my mutual funds are making (or, of late, losing) went directly to the shredder.
There's less waste landing in my mailbox than there once was because I figured out that cutting down on my mail saves a few trees and also gets some of the clutter out of my life.
It's easier than ever to stop junk mail like catalogs from reaching you. And you can receive financial statements and bills online -- and pay them electronically, too.
In 2005, Americans collectively received 100 billion pieces of junk mail. It takes 100 million trees to make the paper for all those catalogs and credit card offers, according to the Ohio EPA. And less than 36% of third-class mail is recycled, according to the EPA.
I signed up a year ago with 41 Pounds, a service that takes its name from the amount of junk mail most of us get each year. I paid $41 for five years to have the not-for-profit contact 20 to 30 direct-mail houses on my behalf. For some catalogs that required my signature to remove my name, they sent pre-addressed form postcards that I filled out and forwarded.
It took maybe six months, longer than I would have liked, to see a real change, but I can't remember the last time I received a credit card offer from a financial company I didn't already do business with. And lately I receive maybe three catalogues a month -- all from companies I did business with after I signed up for the service.
Catalog Choice is a similar, free service that just focuses on catalogs. But according to this report in Business Week, the Direct Marketing Association is encouraging its members to essentially blow off this group's requests. The DMA wants them to steer consumers instead to its own opt-in lists, which are cumbersome and confusing. No surprise there.
In addition to real-world spam there is all the mail we get that isn't junk, but that we don't really need. Those monthly snapshots we get from our bank or brokerage are obsolete by the time they land on our doorstep. Instead, you can get real-time shots of your checking account at the ATM machine or of your portfolio online, where you're probably doing most of your transactions anyway.
The PayitGreen Alliance is a group of financial services companies, including Bank of America (BAC), Capital One (COF) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM), that "encourages consumers to turn off the paper in their financial lives" by using direct deposit and receiving financial statements and paying bills electronically. It reports that the average household receives 19 pieces of mail related to their personal finances each month and makes seven paper payments, which uses up 6.6 pounds of paper and just under one tree.
That might not sound like much, but it adds up. If just 2% of U.S. households (about 2.3 million) got out from under this paper, it would save more than 15 million pounds of paper, 181,000 trees and 196,000 tons of greenhouse gases. The organization has a calculator on its Web site that lets you tally the eco-impact of your financial mail.
Many major financial companies will let you view your statement online these days, and Charles Schwab (SCHW) lets me view shareholder mailings related to my stocks and mutual funds. This is a particular boon because our recycling bin used to overflow with (mostly unread) prospectuses and annual reports.
American Express (AXP) lets you view your latest bill, past activity and purchases from your current billing cycle online -- versatility you can't get on paper. Even utilities like Verizon (VZ) and energy company National Grid (NGG) will let you see your bills online these days.
The downside of online viewing -- the reason I haven't done it yet for most of my bills -- is that companies typically email you to let you know your statement is available at their Web site rather than delivering the actual bill to your email account. Surfing from one site to the next is much less efficient than just plowing through a paper stack. It would surely eat into the two-and-a-half minutes per bill that PayitGreen estimates a person can save by paying bills electronically (unless you print all your bills out to recreate that convenient stack, which brings you back to killing trees).
That's too bad because I'm a big fan of electronic bill paying. I jumped on it when Citibank © began offering it in the early days on the Internet, because it was faster than writing checks and saved me a monthly trip to the post office for stamps. But I now appreciate that it has green advantages, too. Banks are able to pay some of your bills, like utilities and credit cards, and even make payments to your IRA or brokerage account, by electronic transfer instead of sending a physical check.
The Internet was supposed to help us cut down on paper and finally there's a way that it has, by giving us multiple ways to cut down on unwanted and unnecessary paper mail. Give your mailman a break and try one or two of them today.