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The Junkmail Project: The long, long overdue summary

(Or how nerdiness got the better of me and started my quixotic quest to vanquish the windmills of spam)

If junk mail were worth its weight in gold, I would be well on my way to retirement.

I received 993.2009 troy ounces of junk mail last year, and it’s awfully nice to imagine that it would have been worth $840,992.80 as of January 2, 2008. (And nearly $900,000 as I write this!)

Unfortunately, it’s not even worth the paper it’s written on, so I suppose I should keep making my microscopic monthly contribution to my measly little IRA. In fact, it costs me money, and that’s what got me in this mess to begin with.

You see, sometime towards the end of 2006 I was dutifully doing my part to prevent identity theft by shredding credit card offers and old bills (but mostly credit card offers) when my poor, decrepit, old shredder chewed its way through its last scrap of paper. I could have thought some grateful thoughts about the couple of years worth of obedient service my faithful little appliance gave me, but instead I got angry….

And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Actually, you probably would. You might laugh. I simultaneously get wickedly sarcastic and diabolically nerdy.

Why was I so angry? Well, I got thinking about how much junk mail costs me. I’m not just talking about the fact that I was out sixty to eighty bucks for another good shredder. I also thought about:

  • How much cumulative time I’ve wasted shredding things
  • Cost of trash bags for the shreddings
  • Environmental cost and landfill space for all that wasted paper and plastic
  • The fact the senders of that junk got a bulk rate discount to send it. (Meaning we all paid for it with our more expensive non-bulk mail … and taxes.)

So yeah, I started counting it up, and I got mad.

I must’ve been pretty angry, because my reaction was the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done. And believe me, that’s supremely nerdy. I played Dungeons and Dragons in middle school, for chrissake. I got so mad, that….

For the entire course of 2007 I weighed every single piece of mail that I received and logged it in five categories:

  1. Account Mail – This is mail that is directly related to accounts I already have. This includes things like the water bill, increasingly thick credit card bills, paychecks, alumni association mailings, and other such things I either asked for or fully expected to receive.
  2. Non-Account Mail – I certainly could have come up with a better name for this category. But I didn’t. This category is essentially for junk mail sent to me by companies with which I already do business. Mostly, these are up-sell offers. Or those damned “access checks” that Bank of America is so fond of sending me on a weekly basis despite the fact that I haven’t used one in six years. Either way, this category is full of junk, but at the time I started breaking these down I figured I’d differentiate between junk I “opted into” as opposed to “pure spam.”
  3. Spam – This category is for mail from companies with whom I do not have accounts — companies who just “spammed” me hoping I’d think their offer was the right one for me. This includes mortgage refinance solicitations, credit card offers, grocery circulars, invitations to join the AARP, and damn near everything addressed to “Current Resident.”
  4. Magazines – Over the course of the year I had subscriptions to just a couple magazines, but the heft of the periodicals quickly outpaced actual correspondences. The dead tree edition of WIRED apparently does kill a lot of trees. Other magazines I received this year included AutoWeek and JPG.
  5. Personal – This category was strictly for correspondences from friends, family and acquaintances. Birthday cards from grandma. That sort of thing.

There’s one thing I didn’t include: Packages. I thought it didn’t make any sense to include books I ordered from Amazon or cheap electronics from Woot in my total. Those items could really skew what we’re trying to measure here, and half the time they wouldn’t be arriving via the postal service anyway. So I thought it best to leave them out.

So each day, starting January 3 (because the mail didn’t run on the first two days of the year) I would slap my mail across a postal scale before I opened it. I’d total the weight of each category and enter it into an excel spreadsheet. Then I’d throw all the junk in an enormous box, and the rest of the “legit” mail would be handled appropriately.

About two months into it I realized that this idea was a wee bit obsessive and insane. But by that point it was too late to turn back. I had already blogged about it, and several of my more “encouraging” friends weren’t going to let me back out now.

Quickly, my box runneth over. By May I was chugging along into my second box and I started to worry that storage space was going to be a serious issue. If anything, though, this certainly illustrated my point about how much waste this enterprise produces. I couldn’t wait to have a big shredding party at the end of the year and photograph myself standing on an enormous pile of shredding-filled trash bags.

As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, this was a one year project that started last January, yet I’m posting this summary the first week of April. Here’s the deal. Shredding that much junk was a more onerous task than I had anticipated. It was a chore. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t finished yet. I had other, more important things to do. So far this year I’ve spent nearly a month traveling. I had a lot of work to do. I have a yard that would get me kicked out of most homeowner’s associations. (Thank Jeebus my neighborhood doesn’t have one.) So I let it slide.

I also destroyed ANOTHER shredder about a third of the way through this stuff. So I’m taking my time, lest I come up with another stupid project like this one.

By now you’re aching for me to just get to the point and tell you how much mail I got, aren’t you?

Yeah, I thought so.

So what did I end up with?

Just over 68 pounds of crap.

Out of 104.5 pounds of total mail, over 68 of it was pure crap. Stuff I never wanted. Stuff that I would have tossed to the spam filter, if that were possible with snail mail.

More precisely put, I received 30,892 grams of junk mail, out of 47,409 grams of total mail. That’s 65.2 percent.

It’s absolutely overwhelming when you look at it as an aggregate.

If we want to put that into some “real world” perspective, a single dollar bill weighs pretty darned close to one gram. Now, if these people had sent me $30,892 in crisp new Washingtons, I wouldn’t be complaining. (Although my bank might think I’ve taken up a new career if I walk in with a gigantic bag of singles.)

But what they sent me was a little more like this:

Honestly, I’d rather have the gigantic, slimy carp than what I got.

As a whole, damn near two-thirds of my mail was junk, as my patented “Pac-Man Puking a Rainbow” graph clearly shows:

If I had it to do all over again, I would’ve measured differently. I counted things like my bills by the entire piece. Everything within the envelope counted as “account” mail. About halfway through the project I realized that half of the weight of my mobile phone bill was more advertising material. Next time (and believe me there will not be a next time) I would throw those flyers in the “non-account” pile, because I think that would be more reflective of the true nature of this stuff. Advertising materials could very easily be more than 70% of what I received.

I should also mention that this could have been even worse. I received my 68 pounds of crap despite being opted out of “prescreened” credit offers with the major credit bureaus.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned that I get even more junk mail than I had imagined.

I’ve learned that you can’t send a year’s worth of junk through a shredder in one afternoon.

I’ve learned that some companies will send you just about anything, as long as the ROI is positive. (Hey CapitalOne … Bubble wrap? Really?)

I’ve learned that it can be a royal pain in the ass to try to prove a point.

With all of that said, there are a few things you (and I) can do about this, and I’ll devote an entire post to those in the semi-near future.

Until then, watch out for paper cuts and keep your shredders set on “stun.”