Going Paperless


First, Happy 39th Earth Day! I assume we’ll hear big things next year for the 40th, since we love our decimalist celebrations so. I think 3×13 is a nice number myself, but I guess we like those nice round multiples of ten. Hopefully most people do something environmentally conscious every day, as opposed to just once a year, but progress is progress, and I hope the annual holiday continues to improve awareness.

If you know me, you know that I’m pretty big on “Going Green”, and have been since before it was cheap or popular. I think this was in part due to an excellent green civic education obtained through programs that existed in Minnesota in the early ’90s when I was growing up. There were a number of animated mascots teaching important lessons like turning off the lights, buying used, recyling your waste, and so on.

By no means is this intended to be me tooting my own horn; I’m hoping you’ll find some interesting tips and/or data in this post. For one thing, I don’t always succeed, in part because I’m not ready to go “off-grid” and live 100% sustainably. I like my technology a bit too much for that :oP. Last I checked my lifestyle would still require about 3.5 earths if everyone lived as I do; that’s mostly because I eat from the industrial food system and travel cross-country and internationally by jet. One place in particular where I’ve made some progress but hit a wall, the topic of this post, is trying to reduce my paper waste; for the most part this is because other people/organizations with whom I interact still insist on a paper record of our interaction.

I focus in particular on mail that I’ve received (note: this is not a post on the future of the USPS, although that is in and of itself an interesting topic to me), although there’s certainly plenty of other paper I’m forced to waste, such as forms filled out at work and school, receipts received from points of sale, and so on. I finish up with a quick overview of several services out there that can help you reduce the amount of unsolicited paper waste you generate just by existing in modern society.


Since early January, I’ve been using Daytum to track a few trivialities of my day-to-day life. This includes miles traveled (and by what means), beers I’ve drank, what I eat, where I get my caffeine, and relevant to this post, what I’ve received in the mail. You can see my entire data feed; Daytum is a pretty nifty service, and for a monthly subscription you can have additional data sets and display panels. Even free users like myself get CSV export of their data sets, which is what I’ve used in this analysis.

This pie chart shows the percentage breakdown of postal mail received by me January-April 2009
This pie chart shows the percentage breakdown of postal mail received January-April 2009

Here’s how I filtered the categories:

  • Charity – any charitable or non-profit organization with whom I have a preexisting supporting relationship.
  • Scam – a special case of Junk, I occasionally get notices about free cars. I think these are linked to my DNS registration.
  • Package – Orders from Amazon and other sites.
  • Financial – Statements, prospecta, and other communication from my banking institutions.
  • Personal – Cards and letters from friends and family.
  • Junk – A catch-all for other unsolicited paper mail.
  • Magazine – Either a subscription, or something from an organization with which I am associated.
  • Customer Service – Non-financial communications from utilities and other companies with whom I have a client relationship.
  • Netflix – Little red envelopes full of DVDs.


A few caveats about this data: first, this is already after enabling a number of paperless billing options from all of my utilities and banks. By my count, that reduces my monthly statement mailings by 8. Second, this data reflects tax season – many charities and financial institutions are legally required to send me paper copies of documents, even when they’re available online. This material spikes at the beginning of the year, in the months leading up to April 15th.

I find it kind of depressing how much money charities I support spend soliciting me for more money by mail. It’s even more annoying to see when a charity I do support has apparently sold my name to related charities, and I get junk from them when I’m not interested.

Netflix, magazines, and packages are all items I have a choice in. Magazines are definitely a luxury; I enjoy reading them, and their longer-term informativeness beats out my usual internet addiction to news and the like. Many magazines are becoming available as a digital subscription, although we’re not quite there yet. Netflix is an example where Big Content wins; there’s no technical reason all of these movies can’t be available via streaming, but I’m sure there’s all kinds of crazy licensing involved.

Another thing to note is that because I am in a multi-unit home with shared entrance but without a central mail room or mailbox unit, my mailbox is apparently in some legal class where I can receive junk like local restaurant menus and other hand-dropped notices; those are included in junk, as a side-effect of having a physical address.

My overall opinion is that the only things I should receive at my address are packages and personal correspondence. I want everything else to be digital, both because it’s easier to use and organize the information that way in the first place, and because that way I don’t have to recycle large amounts of paper or waste fuel having that paper shipped to me.


So, how do we get down to this point, and how do we reduce it further?

1. Enable paperless options

This is time consuming, but generally a one-time operation. Most major financial institutions and utilities have a pretty straightforward option on their website to disable most (but not all; again, legal requirements) paper notices. You’ll have to do this separately for each institution, unfortunately.

Most institutions will say on the web form that it could take “several billing periods” for paperless billing to be enabled… does anyone have an idea why it would take so long? Are they just covering their bases so as not to promise an instant fix? It seems to me it should just be a bit associated with my account that gets checked whenever something would be printed, and have it e-mailed to me instead.

2. Reduce junk mail

The junk mail reduction service I used in 2007 was GreenDimes, although it’s been renamed Tonic MailStopper. I guess they got bought; however, filling out the cards they sent me definitely reduced unsolicited junk mail. I did this for both me and my sister at my current address (she briefly had mail forwarded here).

3. Recycle

With what junk you do receive, make sure you recycle it through either your municipal curbside pickup or drop-off at your nearest recycling center. Just because they waste paper on you doesn’t mean it all has to end up in a landfill.

4. Digital signatures

A lot of the “legally required” category above suffers because when I respond to an official e-mail, I have no way of affirming that it’s me, or that I’m making a binding decision. A friend of mine pointed out a service, DocuSign, that does electronic signatures and contract execution. I haven’t used their service yet, but as I understand it they’re very popular with realtors. I’m planning to buy a place in the next couple of years, and I would definitely pick a realtor that uses DocuSign over one who insists on paper forms. I also like reading about companies that “get” social media; they have an interesting blog and are on Twitter.

My main hope is that Harvard (where I’m pursuing my part-time Masters) would adopt a system like this one; every semester I spend a lot of time going to campus just to run around and collect signatures from professors, advisors, administrators, registrars, and the like.

5. Complain

No, seriously. For companies that keep sending you crap, calling or writing might be able to get you off their lists. Look for a phone number on the back of catalogs or in the letterhead of the junk they’re sending you. I’ve had some luck getting rid of a couple of catalogs this way.

If you have relationships with a non-profit, encourage them to rely less on paper mass mailings, especially ones sent to reliable givers who maybe don’t even need the wasteful reminder.

6. Opt out

If you’re signing up for something that requires your address, opt out of any mailings or catalogs. Again, a little extra one-time effort, but it can significantly reduce your incoming paper. Web sign-up forms are particularly bad about this, because sometimes they’ll hide the checkbox and have it default to checked.


The best part about the above steps is that any one of them helps the environment a little bit. You don’t have to take all of them, or enable all of them with every company or organization, but every one you do work on gets rid of a few pieces of paper coming into your home, and prevents a lot of trees, water, and energy being wasted getting a stack of paper to your door that you won’t even read before throwing out.

What do you do to reduce your paper usage?


2 responses to “Going Paperless”

  1. ruthling Avatar

    thank you and happy Earth Day. I carried more recyclable crap home from the office yesterday. I’d rather train people to pack out their own, but most people are lazy and clueless and at least this way something happens with it.

  2. If we could start a movement whereby many people just immediately recycled, without opening, every unsolicited mailing sent to them, do you think that would drive down the returns on things like credit card offers, those obnoxious coupon packs, etc? How many people do you think we’d need?

    Also, note to American Express: I already have a green AMEX card. You don’t need to send me applications to create more. (I typically get about 2-3 of these per week, despite being on the no-mail lists with AMEX and other credit-related places)

Nurd Up!