Neither snow nor rain nor heat may stop the postal service from delivering your mail. Even in an age dominated by email—and despite a global pandemic—paper envelopes, glossy magazines, and cardstock postcards endure as a priority.
However, the same priority isn’t considered in the recycling of the steady influx that floods mailrooms and doorsteps around the US.
Between unsolicited mail (or “junk mail”), envelopes with plastic address windows, bubble mailers, shipping boxes, packing peanuts, and more, the lower perceived value and confusion over mail’s recyclability leads to millions of tons of sought-after paper and cardboard filling up the nation’s landfills per year.
It’s a missed opportunity, as not all mail is junk. In fact, it’s the opposite, and understanding what mail is and isn’t recyclable benefits not only the economy and environment, but also your business's waste bill.
The Waste Problem Caused by Junk Mail and Online Retail
According to the USPS, the postal service processes and delivers 173.1 million pieces of first-class mail per day. Among that, it’s estimated each American receives up to 18 pieces of junk mail for every one piece of legitimate (or expected) post.
The source? American businesses. Companies sent 149 billion pieces of direct mail and nearly 9.8 billion catalogs in 2016.
These volumes account for an average of 41 pounds of junk mail per person per year—approximately 50% of which is thrown away (often unopened) instead of recycled. The result, reported by New York University, is over 5.6 million tons of catalogs, addressed envelopes, and other direct mail advertisements ending up in U.S. landfills annually.
Just between the envelopes and contents, magazines, and cardstock forms junk mail takes, it’s estimated that American households collectively throw away the equivalent of 100 million trees’ worth of paper.
Compounding this is the rise of digital retail, an era accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, consumers spent $861.12 billion online, a 44% increase from the year prior. And that, as you may know, requires a lot of shipping boxes and other packaging materials.
According to the Fibre Box Association, U.S. manufacturers produced 407 billion square feet of corrugated cardboard, a year-over-year increase equivalent to 477 square miles of additional product. Specific to the shipping industry, demand for box shipments reached an industry record 34 billion square feet five months in a row in 2020, partly to satisfy the 415 million boxes shipped by online retail giant Amazon in July 2020.
All that cardboard takes a toll on the environment. The Environmental Paper Network estimates 3 billion trees are harvested each year for paper packaging alone. And while corrugated boxes remain one of America’s biggest recycling successes—the EPA reports a 96.5% recycling rate—that still accounts for nearly 1.2 million tons being burned or landfilled.
All told, the steady, reliable flow of U.S. mail and boom of online deliveries has caused shortages, supply bottlenecks, and skyrocketing commodity prices for recycled cardboard and mixed office paper.
With no signs of slowing down, the current situation underscores how badly e-commerce and direct mail senders need their respective receivers (i.e. commercial businesses and individual consumers) to recycle their mail and packages.
And with paper and cardboard capable of being recycled up to seven times without loss in quality, it all comes down to sorting out the value.
What Mail is Easily Recyclable?
Instantly identifying what mail is recyclable, and how to prepare the materials for your hauler, is relatively simple because the majority of what you receive in the mail is 100% recyclable. And when done properly, it makes a big difference. Junk mail and newspapers often return to the economy in the form of magazines, office paper, egg cartons, and more, while an estimated 75% of “new cardboard” is made up of recycled material.
To provide you with an easy reference for what should go in your recycling bin, the following items can be routinely recycled:
Paper envelopes with paper content: A standard envelope, including stamp and return address label, can be recycled without any preparation. If the contents of the letter are paper-based, without lamination or foils, these can be recycled without concern for Post-It Notes, staples, paper clips, or binder clips. (Although, you should attempt to reuse paper clips and binder clips wherever possible.)
Paper envelopes with address windows: Despite small transparent film that covers an address window likely being made of plastic or cellulose, most recycling facilities have the ability to remove it in the pulping process. However, like most products constructed of mixed materials, it can also complicate things—so simply ripping off and throwing away the window is considered a best practice.
Cardboard boxes: Corrugated cardboard boxes (the type with the “wavy” middle layer) should be an automatic consideration to recycle. Although, preparing them properly will prevent contamination and fees associated with volume. For one, fiber-based tape (like the variety Amazon uses) does not need to be removed.
Cardboard boxes should also be broken down flat as a space-saving measure, reducing the number of pickups required. See our step-by-step instructions for guidance.
Magazines and glossy cardstock: Magazines and cardstock postcards, even the glossy varieties, are recyclable, as the finish is removed during the pulping process. In the case of magazines, remove any product samples, sticker sheets, and/or plastic wrap before putting them in your bin.
Newspapers and brown filler paper: Newspapers have always been recyclable. On top of that, they can feed a closed-loop recycling process, whereas recycled newsprint can be remanufactured into new editions. Meanwhile, the brown packaging paper found in many shipments (often used in lieu of packing peanuts) should be recycled with other paper and cardboard products.
These are mentioned in the same breath because, as an alternative, both of these materials can be shredded and effectively composted as a carbon-rich material.
A note about personal or sensitive information: Many businesses routinely encounter correspondence that features confidential information or materials that warrant privacy concerns. Shredding paper is often the first course of action for sensitive mail. Unfortunately, shredded paper is often not accepted by haulers for its reduced value and proclivity for becoming lost or contaminated in the mechanical sorting process.
Our suggestion? If sensitive information can be manually clipped or blacked out from documents, do so and recycle the remainder. If not, find a data security company who actually recycles the scraps, like Iron Mountain.
What Mail is Not Recyclable?
Whether a supplement or the primary packaging for letters and parcels, there are some materials that can contaminate the value of recyclable mailing materials. These are the items to keep out of your recycling:
Bubble mailers and padded envelopes: Whether it’s a plastic or Manila paper envelope, if the inside features plastic bubble wrap, you shouldn’t put it in your recycling bin. Instead, check for local drop-offs, as many collection sites for plastic bags also accept these.
Air pockets, bubble wrap, and packing peanuts: The filler items that protect your item from damage inside the box must be removed if you are to recycle the cardboard. If possible, reuse these items for your own packing and shipping needs, or seek a separate collection site (especially for polystyrene packing peanuts).
Junk credit cards/rewards cards: Through special offers and promotions, companies send plastic cards as part of the mailer. These cards, made of polyvinyl chloride acetate (PVCA), are not easily recycled. Ensure they are removed before recycling all paper products.
Adhesives and plastic tape: Any pressure-sensitive “packing tape” or affixed packing slip sleeves should be removed from cardboard boxes, as it’s usually made with a polypropylene or polyester backing. Similarly, the adhesive globs that keep mail folded or attach “special offer” credit cards should be peeled off and thrown in the trash.
For more information on recycling mailing products or a discussion about your business’s sustainability efforts, get in touch with one of RoadRunner Recycling’s strategy experts.