How I shrunk the junk mail

Last year, I vowed to eliminate my junk mail. After fighting in vain to contact every catalog and junk mailer by myself, I looked into other options. In July, I subscribed to GreenDimes (now renamed Mailstopper) to unsubscribe me from catalogs, companies and other unwanted senders of mail.

For an overview of their services, see my original post here. Basically, the company promises to automatically unsubscribe subscribers from direct mail services.  Then, users can go online to the Mailstopper Web site and enter in junk mail as it arrives. The company will request on your behalf that you be unsubscribed.

The premium service I subscribed to allows you to include multiple names. That is perfect for us, because my husband has two names under which some companies send him mail; my daughter and I get onto lists; and we still receive junk mail addressed to the previous homeowner (who moved out 4 years ago) and her family. All of those names are being unsubscribed.

It also includes not only catalogs, but companies — like DirecTV and Big O Tires — that have extensive mailing lists.

The service takes some time. In October, I reported that in a two-week period, my junk mail — only the mail we didn’t need — weighed four pounds. At the three-month point, I didn’t see a huge reduction in junk — although, granted, the holidays were approaching, and every catalog company known to humanity was sending out piles of mail.

Now? It’s a different story.

The picture above shows our junk mail for the past two weeks. Total weight? 20 ounces.

And a lot of this mail isn’t strictly junk. The contents include:

  • A seasonal gardening catalog (weight: 6 ounces)
  • My AAA member magazine (3 ounces)
  • A membership promotion from the art museum and one from the natural history museum — both of which we’re likely to accept (2 ounces)
  • Coupons from four retailers I use and one I probably won’t, total savings of $34  (3 ounces)
  • Two bills (1 ounce) – just signed up to receive both electronically
  • Two promotions for programs my daughter participates in (1 ounce)
  • 5 pieces of financial information and promotions from a credit card company with whom we have cards (3 ounces)

Overall,  we’ve cut our junk mail by 75 percent. Some days, I get only one or two pieces of mail, and they’re usually relevant. A year ago, my mailbox was bulging every day.

Try a free option to cut back

Several readers have commented that they use Catalog Choice. They provide a list of all catalog merchants who have agreed to participate on their site. They don’t seem to include companies that Mailstopper does include. But for free, you can cut way down on the hassle, printing, recycling and shipping of all those catalogs you just don’t need.

Either way, you’ll also benefit from having temptation removed — if you don’t see that amazing gadget or cool new pair of boots, you won’t even know you want them.

Gift-wrap free holidays

Ground zero for U.S. consumerism (and its corollary, waste) is less than two weeks away — Christmas Day. Unless you’re a super early-bird, odds are good that you’re going to be wrapping up some presents in the next days.

Traditional wrapping paper looks festive under the tree. The problem is, it costs money (even though the paper is pretty, I do cringe at paying for something that will quickly become trash) — and wrapping paper cannot always be recycled, because of the materials of which it is made.

Now is a great time to see if you can wrap up your gifts without any waste. Are you in?

A few weeks ago, Erin of Creation Halt pointed out this official No Gift Wrap Challenge.

Yesterday, I tried to give some new incentives here with posts on super cheap-n-easy gift bags and on taking the plastic out of shipping. (Speaking of the latter, I’ve noticed that several retailers, including Amazon.com, have swapped plain old crumpled brown paper for those inflatable plastic padding, at least for nonbreakable items. Yeehaw!)

How else can you skip the gift wrap? Let us count the ways …

  1. Go elegant, as the challenge page proposes, with fancy Japanese furoshiki wrappings customized for the gift inside.
  2. Re-use gift bags and wrapping paper, or go for my cereal bag trick above.
  3. Visit your local fabric store for plain or fancy fabrics, or holiday prints, that you will be able to re-use again and again. Before you go, check the paper or online for coupons — many stores offer a coupon for 40% or 50% off one item, and one length of fabric usually counts as an item.  For smaller gifts, fold the fabric instead of cutting it to preserve its purpose.
  4. Purchase rolls of fabric ribbons that can be used and re-used.
  5. Knit a mini-stocking to use as a gift card or cash presenter.
  6. Hit the thrift store and think creatively. Use vintage tins to present a CD, a scarf, or jewelry in addition to cookies. Wrap a gift inside an inexpensive sweater the gift-giver can use. Buy a reusable basket and put kitchenware or food gifts inside.
  7. Use kitchen foil and decorate with a bright ribbon.
  8. Collect festive holiday shopping bags from those who use them and cut them into gift wrap or use as a gift bag.
  9. Cut and sew old sheets into gift bags. BlogHer published all the details, plus a great tip to avoid the irritating process of inserting a drawstring: Simply sew ribbons into the seam of the bag, near the top, and wrap the ribbon around. Get a great deal on ribbons with a ribbon grab bag — I found one recently at Hobby Lobby that cost about $2 for 20 two-yard lengths of ribbon.
  10. Scavenge for pieces of butcher paper or craft paper to use — either alone or adorned with drawings, paintings or potato-stamp motifs — as gift wrap.
  11. Use the old classic — newspaper comics.

And if you are still looking for affordable and/or low-waste items to put INSIDE those gift packages, this list will get the mental lightbulb burning — and several of the ideas are doable at the last minute.

Green (and cheap) your shipping by unpacking plastic

‘Tis the season to send gifts far, far away … and whether you’re shipping a handmade gift to your grandma, a box of donations to children in another country or (we won’t tell) an item so perfect that you averted your green AND cheap mindsets just this once, I ask you to consider your shipping supplies.

Whatever the contents, wherever the destination, whichever the shipping service, think about doing what you can to unpack the plastic and waste from your shipped items.

Padding packages

A couple of months ago, I wrote about UPS and their plastic bubble wrap envelopes. After that experience, I started looking around for more earth-friendly padded envelopes. At first, I thought of those envelopes filled with insulation-like fiber — but the world is awash in complaints about how the paper fibers can get everywhere, ruin DVDs and videos, render outfits unpresentable, etc. And once used, even assuming the recipient is clever enough to pull the opening tab instead of cutting open one end and unleashing the dusty filling, they can’t really be used again, and probably are difficult to recycle. (Although apparently they are perfect for shipping “oily components.”)

Then I found this GreenWrap at Staples. It is imperfect (not recycled), but a great alternative to plastic.

Greenwrap comes in sheets and is a substitute for conventional plastic bubble wrap. Over 75% of the fibers in Greenwrap are sourced from Certified Sustainable Forests and the product is fully recyclable with mixed papers.

I was pleased to see that much of the padding in a gift box I ordered recently from Uncommon Goods was Greenwrap.

I have shipped several items in Greenwrap and a plain 8 1/2 x 11″ envelope – perfect!

Unplastic the tape

What had not crossed my mind until recently was to seek out alternatives for plastic shipping tape. This site — referred to by Fake Plastic Fish, who was promoting a No Plastic Packaging Challenge — looks great, and it’s a good place to order paper packing tape. For good measure, the paper tape is much cheaper than plastic tape. At case rates found online, plastic tape costs 3.7 cents per foot; paper tape costs 0.125 cents (1/8 of one cent) per foot. Apparently, you can buy a case of 24 rolls of paper tape for $5.

To finish eliminating plastic tape, I’ll need to:

  • Handwrite addresses instead of taping on pre-printed shipping labels from sales channels like Amazon.com and Alibris.
  • Using environmentally friendly shipping labels instead of taping on pre-printed postage labels when postage is printed online from eBay or the USPS.
  • Or better yet, just stop by the post office en route to somewhere else and managing postage manually, with stamps or simple water-based, glue-on metered postage.

Reuse

For most readers of this blog, this goes without saying, but reusing any packing material is better than buying new anything else. If you throw away the bubble wrap you receive and run out to buy paper padding, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Use the old and you’ll save time, money and resources.

If you have too much bubble wrap or too many packing peanuts, drop them off at a shipping store. You’ll still be recycling and they’ll be happy to see you coming, because you’ll save them a few dollars, too.

If you are looking to pack your shipments for free and you don’t have enough shipping materials to reuse, this post mentions a bunch of places to find free shipping supplies.

Save money on shipping fees

When it’s time to actually get that package out the door, it’s hard to know what method will be most cost-effective. A new beta site called ShipGooder proposes to help you with that. Enter the starting point, destination, size and weight, and it will return a chart of options to help you find the least expensive route for your goods.

Quick tip: Save 15% on toilet paper by subscribing

The other day, I was doing some comparison shopping on Amazon.com for some of our regular household purchases (like Ecover dishwashing liquid and 100% recycled toilet paper).

I found that the toilet paper we buy costs the same at Amazon as it does at our local store, but the dish soap will cost 4 cents per ounce less if I buy it online in bulk.

The most intriguing thing I spotted was Amazon’s subscription program. For purchases (like toilet paper) that you make again and again, Amazon now will let you subscribe. If you sign up to receive automatic shipments of your order every one to six months, you’ll get a 15 percent discount.

In the case of my toilet paper, that would bring the roll price down to 85 cents per roll — significantly less than the $1.10 per roll it was last year when I put together my toilet paper cost comparison chart.

But too bad for me … we use little enough toilet paper that we wouldn’t go through a case in six months, their maximum subscription time frame. Maybe I could go in with a friend …

Has anyone tried this program?

Cutting junk mail

As far in the past as last Christmas, I had a subscription to GreenDimes on my wish list. GreenDimes is a company that lets you sign up, either for free or for a fee, depending on the services you want to receive, to eliminate your junk mail.

With GreenDimes, you start out by choosing the service level you’re interested in. The free service says it will handle some of your basic junk mail, if you’re willing to do the legwork yourself. I was interested in the premium service, which costs a one-time fee of $20. For that $20, the company does several things:

  • Allows you to input as many names as you want. This was really important to me, because we are still receiving mail for former residents of our house — not only the woman who lived here before we moved in three years ago, but whole bunch of other people whose identity is a total mystery to us.
  • Helps you help yourself. After I signed up, GreenDimes sent me a stack of postcards to send to the companies that require my signature. The postcards were addressed, had the appropriate text on them and even were stamped.
  • Goes automatic. The GreenDimes system automatically signs you up to be eliminated from some of the big mailing lists, such as the Direct Mail Association and Reader’s Digest related organizations.
  • Includes everybody. Another advantage of GreenDimes is that not only can you eliminate catalogs and direct mail, but you also can eliminate mail from companies. This would have been an especially fantastic feature to have activated a few months ago, before Office Depot sent me its giant 5-pound catalog that I received yesterday — and will never open.

It’s still too early to tell just how much junk mail the service will eliminate from my life. I can tell you, though, that last week when I input a bunch of junk mail I’ve received into the system, the mail that I requested GreenDimes to eighty-six included matter from about 12 organizations, and the total weighed one and a half pounds.

Another choice.

If your major junk mail problem is catalogs, there is another option. Around the blogosphere, I’ve seen several mentions of Catalog Choice as a good way to cut down on junk mail. It’s all free and available here. I haven’t heard too much about the outcomes, but my mom mentioned that she’s used the service and she likes it.

Have you tried either of these companies? Do you have other solutions for eliminating junk mail? If so, please share your experience below.

Answers – Anniversary Questions – Part 1

I got so many great questions from readers for my one-year anniversary last week – not to mention all the sweet comments. Thank YOU all for reading and making this blog so much fun. Your being here helps motivate me to keep on keepin’ on — even though things feel a little dark at times in terms of our environmental/economic future.

Now for the questions – and my best shot at some answers for you. Here are the first three! More to follow on Tuesday.

What’s your take on unplugging appliances when they aren’t been used? Does turning a light on and off consume more electricity than leaving it on (I don’t mean all night!). What about the energy use of a computer in sleep mode versus the energy of booting up?

This first question was a three-parter.

  1. Unplugging appliances: I did write about this in December, briefly, and referred readers to a site to learn more about standby appliances and appliance energy. See that post here. In brief, unplugging appliances saves energy – not usually a lot, but if you are being tough, it can add up.
  2. Turning lights off/on: Turning lights off saves energy, period. The Straight Dope covered this concisely (apparently in 1980). But the gist is that the idea that you use more energy to turn a light off/on comes from fluorescent bulbs, whose lives are shortened by flicking them on and off (because of an “inrush” current or higher needed energy to turn the lamp back on). The U.S. Department of Energy goes further to point out that:

In any case, the relatively higher “inrush” current required lasts for half a cycle, or 1/120th of a second. The amount of electricity consumed to supply the inrush current is equal to a few seconds or less of normal light operation. Turning off fluorescent lights for more than 5 seconds will save more energy than will be consumed in turning them back on again. Therefore, the real issue is the value of the electricity saved by turning the light off relative to the cost of relamping a fixture. This in turn determines the shortest cost-effective period for turning off a fluorescent light.

In brief: Turn them off to save energy. It might cost you slightly more in bulbs purchased over the long haul, but savings appear to be negligible.

  1. Computer asleep or off: (sorry, folks, can’t figure out how to number this “3”!) An EnergyStar computer in sleep mode uses about 15 watts of energy (if it is “napping,” or in that lighter sleep mode) or 8 watts (in the deeper sleep mode), according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It does take a little more energy to boot up — but not enough to make up for eight to 14 hours of “off” time overnight, for instance. Turn it off if you will be away from it for several hours or overnight (turning it off at a power strip will ensure it’s really off — as with the “standby” information above, computers take some energy when they are plugged in). Let it sleep if you are just going to be away briefly. And use a laptop if possible — they consume less energy.

We’re heading out for a two-week vacation in early July. We have 2 cats, so don’t want to totally broil them. What do you do when you travel? Water heater? AC temp? Appliances?

I meant to turn off our hot water heater last time we left, but I definitely will remember when we go away for a whole week next month, and for two weeks, it’s a great idea. If you have an electric hot water heater, turn it off at the breaker. If you have a gas hot water heater, look for the “vacation” setting on the thermostat. (Leave yourself a note to turn it back up when you get home!)

Also:

-Close curtains and drapes to keep sun out and reduce A/C cycling on.

-For the refrigerator (a big energy user), GE has some recommendations:

· leave refrigerator running

· remove perishable foods

· if refrigerator and freezer are less than 1/2 full, plastic gallon jugs of water may be placed in the refrigerator to assist in maintaining the proper temperature and run time. A few bags of ice or plastic gallon jugs of water (not too full, as the water expands when it freezes) may be placed in the freezer. Cold items help maintain a cold internal temperature when the compressor is not running, thus reducing the amount of time the compressor has to operate.

· leave temperature controls at normal settings, or if all food is removed and you want to save energy, control may be set to low setting (2) during the absence.

-Unplug other appliances so they can’t use electricity (and as an added bonus, you’ll remove bizarre fire risk).

As for the cats and A/C, I’m no expert, but consider how hot your house gets. Most of us aren’t comfortable at 90 degrees, but it’s not necessarily life-threatening. 100 might be another matter. Be sure they have plenty of water and a cool place to hang out (basement?). I’m sure someone will be checking on them with that long absence. If you are really worried, ask your vet! Consumer Reports has general info on air conditioner savings here.

Does Little Cheap create a lot of art on paper? We are a bit overwhelmed with paper art. If you have it, what do you do with it?

Ay yi yi. Do we have art on paper. Not to mention handouts from school. I approach this in several ways:

Our household purchases recycled paper.

I encourage her to use recycled paper (printed on one side) for artwork.

We try to purchase less-bleached paper (like “manila” paper) for larger sheets that she wants for drawing/painting instead of bleached paper.

I encourage her to give away her old drawings as gifts, use them as wrapping paper, etc.

I throw her best work into a bin and go through it every year or two to decide what to keep. I have even gone so far as to photograph some stuff and save the photos instead of the pages.

I use the backs of school handout papers in my printer. The school is working on going green, and posting more things online only.

I usually recycle the art when its interest has died out, although some of it we’ve composted. Newspaper also can be layered with clay soil to break it up — it will biodegrade over time — and paper art, especially construction paper, also might be a candidate.

To some extent, I suck it up and remember she won’t be going through paper at this rate forever — and trees are, at least, a renewable resource.

After pondering this question we thought about painting one wall of her playroom with chalkboard paint to minimize the paper usage. (Although I’m still not sure if that’s more eco-friendly or not … between the chalk and its dust and the paint.)

Please add any of your own tips or experiences below – and watch for more next week!

90% reduction update

Organic Needle reminded me to do an update on our performance during the Riot for Austerity, which I started 10 months ago. This is the 90 percent challenge that I’ve mentioned on this blog — with the goal of cutting consumption by 90 percent from U.S. average consumption.

Here’s the update on what I did and how it turned out:

1. Gasoline. Average American usage is 500 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR. A 90 percent reduction would be 50 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR.

Our use: With our family of three, we would be allowed 150 gallons per year or 12.5 gallons per month. HA! We live in a city where it would be very difficult to do things like see our families (who live about 15+ miles away) without using cars. They have complex calculations for using public transportation, and no mention of how to figure things like air travel (which, I’m sure, must simply be disallowed). Our average usage was 53 gallons per month in 2007 and 44 gallons per month so far in 2008 (although in May, we have used just 19 gallons so far). Composite average: 49.78 gallons per month or 40 percent of average.

2. Electricity. Average US usage is 11,000 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR, or about 900 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. A 90% reduction would mean using 1,100 PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR or 90 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. Hydro and Wind are deemed to have a 4 to 1 payback over other methods – you get 4 times as many.

Our use: We pay a supplement to use all wind-powered electricity, so we get 360 kwh per month for our household with the challenge. Since the challenge began, we’ve averaged 486 kwh per month, or 54 percent of average. I don’t know how they account for working at home, which in my case requires that our household use include two computers, a laser printer, fax, etc., as well as someone working in my office all day.

3. Heating and Cooking Energy – this is divided into 3 categories, gas, wood and oil. [We use natural gas.] US Average Natural Gas usage is 1000 therms PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. A 90% reduction would mean a reduction to 100 therms PER HOUSEHOLD PER YEAR, or 8.3 therms per month.

Our use: Since the challenge started, we used 77.3 therms per month or 773 total for 10 months. We are close to average on this. We have a gas hot water heater, a gas furnace, a gas stove, and we live in Colorado. Again, I work at home so I am here all day. I also tend to be cold, so much so that my fingers turn blue even when the thermostat is set to 68 (which means the actual house temperature is 62 to 64 degrees), as it was this winter. I don’t see a lot we can do here, although we turn the furnace way down at night, and I have tried to divert cooking from the gas stove to electric appliances. 93 percent of average.

4. Garbage – the average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. For our family of three, we are allowed 1.35 lbs per day.

Our use: We have generated about 455 lbs of garbage in the last 10 months, or around 1.5 lbs per day. This doesn’t include recycling (I’m not sure of the weight, but we’ve filled our big cart 16.5 times during the past 10 months; if a full cart averages 30 lbs, that’s 495 lbs) or things we’ve donated, given away or sold (another 582 lbs). 11 percent of average (or 23 percent of average including recycling). (Note: I saw a comment on that post suggested 2.5 lbs per person per day is average excluding recycling/compost — I have not measured our compost weight. But we’d be at 20 percent of average for garbage using that figure.)

5. Water. The Average American uses 100 Gallons of water PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean 10 gallons PER PERSON, PER DAY. For our family of three, that’s 30 gallons a day.

Our use: We used 62,000 gallons during the past 10 months. That’s about 206 gallons a day. We use a high-efficiency washing machine, an EnergyStar dishwasher that we run on the lightest cycle every time, I save water in the shower to re-use, and we avoid unnecessary toilet flushing. We water our lawn sparingly, but we do water it; we are converting part of our yard to xeriscape. The catch with this one? We grow a bunch of our own food, and that takes water. Imperfect science. 69 percent of average.

6. Consumer Goods. The best metric I could find for this is using money. A Professor at Syracuse University calculates that as an average, every consumer dollar we spend puts .5 lbs of carbon into the atmosphere. This isn’t perfect, of course, but it averages out pretty well. The average American spends 10K PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR on consumer goods, not including things like mortgage, health care, debt service, car payments, etc… Obviously, we recommend you minimize those things to the extent you can, but what we’re mostly talking about is things like gifts, toys, music, books, tools, household goods, cosmetics, toiletries, paper goods, etc… A 90% cut would be 1,000 dollars PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR

Our use: Suffice it to say that I spent $3,500 in the past year in the “household” category of my budget alone, which includes some new furnishings, painting our house, and investments in things like CFL bulbs and water-saving aerators, as well as garden supplies, cleaning products, etc. There’s simply no way. And I must admit, I don’t have a very big interest in not spending money to this extent. But I do work to buy used items a lot, and I am making a conscious effort to try to purchase things made locally or fairly as much as possible (my Target budget is nothing like it was a couple of years ago).

7. Food. This was by far the hardest thing to come up with a simple metric for. Using food miles, or price gives what I believe is a radically inaccurate way of thinking about this. So here’s the best I can do. Food is divided into 3 categories. … #1 is food you grow, or which is produced *LOCALLY AND ORGANICALLY* (or mostly – it doesn’t have to be certified, but should be low input, because chemical fertilizers produce nitrous oxide which is a major greenhouse contributor). Local means within 100 miles to me. … #2 is is *DRY, BULK* goods, transported from longer distances. That is, *whole, unprocessed* beans, grains, and small light things like tea, coffee, spices (fair trade and sustainably grown *ONLY*), or locally produced animal products partly raised on unprocessed but non-local grains, and locally produced wet products like oils. … This should be no more than 25% of your total purchases. # 3 is Wet goods – conventionally grown meat, fruits, vegetables, juices, oils, milk etc… transported long distances, and processed foods like chips, soda, potatoes. Also regular shampoo, dish soap, etc… And that no one should buy more than 5% of their food in this form. Right now, the above makes up more than 50% of everyone’s diet.

I didn’t even go there. All this tracking takes up tons of time. Maybe some day …

How did I do?

Not that great. But it’s really hard. One thing I’ve taken from this type of challenge is that these changes take an enormous time investment. To do them to perfection, one would have to return to off the grid, do it yourself. Like the pioneers. Only the pioneers were not holding down a full-time job, going to graduate school and transporting children to school and activities. We are, and I know from my two months of processing fruits and vegetables in most of my spare time last fall, there’s only so much we can fit into a day.

Some argue that we should give up, for instance, soccer if soccer uses so many resources (gas to drive, uniform, ball, snack, game fees). But I have a hard time with depriving my kid or myself of normal life experiences when we are working hard in many ways to reduce our footprint. Likewise, our household suffers from high aesthetic standards. So I’m willing to make it myself, buy used, etc., but I don’t want to be completely out of style or not maintain a certain level of comfort and attractiveness in my home, where I spend nearly all my time.

And some categories — like using more organics or growing our own food — reflect badly on other categories — like spending money or using water.

What can I do?

We do have a few more goals in mind to help with our consumption:

  • Gas: I want to look into carpooling my daughter to school next year. It is only 2.5 miles away, but the drive adds up. Carpooling might cut it in half. Mr. Cheap plans to take public transportation to his job, too.
  • Water: We want to install rain barrels — which, as I understand it, are on their way to legality in Denver.
  • Food: Last year, I was not that impressed with our local farmers markets, but I did work hard to buy locally produced food or organic food at our grocery store. I will try the farmers markets again this year, or maybe join a CSA (I think I just found another local option that still has openings!). And we want to add more to our home food production, hopefully including chickens when we have a chance to get it together.

What do you think about these challenges? Are you determined to reduce in any particular area? Or do the challenges discourage you by showing just how hard it is?