A few pieces of junk mail stuffed into the mailbox are no big deal -- a minor annoyance, perhaps, and more fuel for a waste paper basket that already may be bulging.
What I found waiting for me several years ago, after having been overseas for a while, was an entirely different matter: There, covering a table and spilling onto the floor and seemingly on the verge of gaining critical mass, was 16 pounds of junk mail.
I had been out of the country and my dutiful parents had kept all mail, even if it wasn't worth forwarding. My pile of junk -- which included appeals for money, opportunities to save the world by embracing dynamic political candidates, the chance to apply for a federal energy technology grant and an offer to be taught English -- filled a large trash can.
Remembering this forest-ravaging, dump-filling exercise in futility, when it appeared I would be going abroad again, I vowed to stem the tide.
While I hardly dared hope I could succeed, I can reveal that I was largely successful.
The implications are enormous. Anyone can follow a few simple steps -- well, eight or nine in some cases -- and cut the torrent of junk mail to a trickle. Even if you can't give an earnest organization an ironclad reason that it is wasting its hard-begged money, you still can lighten your postal worker's load and ease the strain on a nice stand of harmless trees.
The first thing I did was to start a log of all junk mail that came in: Data would be crucial if I was to claim victory at the end of a hard campaign.
The first month I recorded 32 pieces of mail from organizations I did not support, issuers of credit cards I did not need and publications I never would buy. Two groups sent duplicate mailings before three weeks passed. Four groups sent bogus surveys, a popular but transparent ploy: "Every person who doesn't return this survey lowers the objective reliability of the results." That is enough to make a true social scientist weep.
Virtually everyone sent letters, one up to eight pages single-spaced with bits underlined in purple ink.
Next came the important part of my crusade. Every time a sales pitch came with a prepaid envelope, I wrote a note to them, ranging from the savage to the courteous, depending on my mood and the gravity of the crime, requesting that my name be removed from the organization's mailing list and advising that future communication would go into a black hole. Then I sent the envelope back. (Just marking an envelope "refused -- return to sender" does no good unless it is marked "return postage guaranteed." And little junk mail is.)
Eventually I sent back nearly 100 envelopes. Although this cost some time, I took an increasingly perverse pleasure in doing it, particularly to the repeat offenders.
And repeat offenders there were aplenty. In the 15 months of my log, the Environmental Defense Fund wrote me nine times, no doubt pushing more saplings closer to the ax. Project Hope (well named, as regards its efforts to woo me) wrote eight times.
Possibly the most amazing letter came from Common Cause -- one of the four I received from the group in as many months -- complaining about congressional mass mailings. It was immense and must have cost a mint to print, and must have cost even more when I sent the entire package back. I told the Cause that I would do the same with future mailings until my name was lost. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but suddenly the group went very quiet.
Some material was astonishing. A group called the Orphan Foundation, for instance, exclaimed that "millions of unwanted youngsters are abandoned every day, orphaned." Think about it. Taking a conservative figure of 2 million orphans from this nugget of information, within a year you have 730 million orphans. In four years that would work out to roughly half the earth's population.
Lest it appear that I'm totally coldhearted, I should point out that I do give money to charities and groups I feel are worthwhile: In fact, that is one of the reasons I got a lot of junk mail. But I strictly limited my donations and memberships to one a month, including renewals. Any group that sent more than one appeal was automatically struck off my list of potential recipients.
In addition I had to be firm with groups to which I had sent money. Greenpeace, for instance, started sending unnecessary extra appeals. When I renewed my membership I reduced my check to the minimum and said the money would stop altogether unless the letters were cut back. Again, perhaps it was a coincidence, but they were cut back.
Several groups, including one for which I'd worked as a volunteer, had the nerve to suggest I make monthly payments -- two of them even had the nerve to do it by phone. I told them that if ever I heard such an unrealistic suggestion from them again they would do without a yearly check. This also seemed to have the desired effect.
Before I moved, I wrote all my charities to tell them they would get no more money as I was leaving the country and they shouldn't even try to contact me. Most struck me off their lists.
One group I've never supported was concerned enough about a note I sent back at its expense that it wrote an apology and suggested I write to the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service. Under this, consumers may ask that their names be removed from (or added to) the lists of participating groups and companies.
An increasing number of firms admit that they sell their customers' names and invite the customers to stop them. This I did at every opportunity.
Somewhere in this vast country, I'd like to think, there's a list or two with my name on it and an asterisk next to it that means: "Do not write to this person, as he is an obsessed note-writer capable of wild and expensive acts."
In reality, I suspect the cumulative effect of my note-writing and registration with the DMMA has simply gotten my name off of many lists.
How many? Indeed, I am pleased to report that my parents, braced, as before, for the onslaught as "beneficiaries" of my change of address form, have received just 12 junk mailings for me in six months. That figure of just two a month shows that junk mail is not inevitable.
Among ways to reduce the amount of unsolicited mail:
Write the Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, 11 West 42nd St., P.O. Box 3861, New York, N.Y. 10163-3861. Send them your name and address, in all its mailing list permutations. This will reduce current mailings and should prevent new ones from getting your name.
Equifax Consumer Direct's buyer's market service will help you receive mail of your choice. Call 1-800-289-7658 for an application; 6-month free trial, then $10 a year.
"The Junk Mail Prevention Kit," a 20-page booklet offering practical ways of controlling unsolicited mail, is available from publisher K.D. Enviro-Ventures, 5235 Roland Dr., Indianapolis, Ind. 46208. It includes 8 pre-written postcards and 88 return stickers. $3.95, plus $1 for postage and handling.
The Smith & Hawken mail-order firm suggests writing companies that send you solicited or paid subscription materials and telling them not to sell your name to other firms. When you ask an organization to be added to their list, tell them not to sell your name to any other organization.