The volume of junk mail in the UK

Surprisingly, it's unknown how much advertising mail is distributed in the UK. There are plenty of figures about addressed junk mail but hardly any data about unaddressed junk mail is publicly available.

The volume of addressed junk mail

Let's start with the type of junk mail for which we have got figures: addressed junk mail. The amount of addressed advertising mail pushed through our letterboxes peaked in 2003 and has since declined:

Year Volume Perc + / -
1998 3,106m  
1999 3,253m + 4.7
2000 3,487m + 7.2
2001 3,681m + 5.6
2002 3,903m + 6.0
2003 4,212m + 7.9
2004 4,196m - 0.4
2005 3,978m - 5.2
2006 3,911m - 1.7
2007 3,669m - 6.2
2008 3,463m - 5.6
2009 3,281m - 5.3
Average 3,678m  
Source: Waste Prevention Report 2009

The effect of the Mailing Preference Service

There are two of obvious reasons for the downward trend; increased competition from online advertising and the economic recession. The effect of other factors is less clear. For instance, it's not easy to establish what effect the steady increase in the number of people registered with the Mailing Preference Service has on junk mail volumes. The opt-out scheme for addressed junk mail only prevents unsolicited junk mail (the postal equivalent of cold calling). In order to estimate how much junk mail the Mailing Preference Service prevents we need to know what percentage of all addressed junk mail is solicited, and how much is unsolicited.

A report by the Mail Media Centre (Mail Volumes and Response Rate by Industry Sector, April 2011) estimates that 71.4% of all addressed mail goes to 'prospects' – that is, people with whom the sender doesn't have an existing relationship. The remainder of addressed junk mail is sent to people who are 'clients'.

If the figure of 71.4% is correct we can calculate that of the 3,281m pieces of addressed junk mail posted in 2009 just over 2,3 million were unsolicited:

3,281m x 71.4% = 2,34m

This doesn't mean that the Mailing Preference Service could, potentially, stop up to 2,34 million pieces of junk mail per year. To further complicate things, we would also need to know what percentage of the total volume of unsolicited addressed junk mail is covered by the opt-out scheme. Only members of the Direct Marketing Association are required to check if people are registered with the opt-out scheme – it would therefore be wrong to assume the service stops all unsolicited addressed junk mail. As per usual the Direct Marketing Association doesn't provide such data, and so it's impossible to make a proper guesstimate of what impact the Mailing Preference Service is having on junk mail volumes.

The volume of unaddressed junk mail

Unaddressed junk mail should be divided into two main categories: unaddressed mail items (i.e. stuff that comes through the letterbox) and inserts (leaflets that come with newspapers and magazines). The volume of unaddressed mail is measured (in the Direct Marketing Association's Market Size reports) but the general public isn't allowed to know how much leaflets and inserts we have to put up with. The only statistic about the volume of unaddressed junk mail that's in the public domain was published by Defra in 2007. At the time the department's website claimed that Postcomm (long since abolished) estimated that 3.4 billion items of addressed direct mail and 13 billion items of unaddressed direct mail were sent out in 2005/6.

The figure of 13 billion items includes unaddressed mail as well as inserts in newspapers and magazines. An exact breakdown is – you guessed it – not available. This leaves us with a rather incomplete table for unaddressed mail and inserts:

Year Mail Inserts Total
1998 Secret Secret Secret
1999 Secret Secret Secret
2000 Secret Secret Secret
2001 Secret Secret Secret
2002 Secret Secret Secret
2003 Secret Secret Secret
2004 Secret Secret Secret
2005 Secret Secret Secret
2006 Secret Secret 13bn
2007 Secret Secret Secret
2008 Secret Secret Secret
2009 Secret Secret Secret

Why be secretive?

In the above table I'm using the word 'Secret' rather than 'Unknown' because the volume of unaddressed mail is actually known – they're in the Market Size reports I mentioned above. Perhaps the most interest fact about junk mail is that the industry chooses not to publish data about unaddressed junk mail. Intriguingly, even Defra – which has a voluntary responsiblity deal with the industry aiming to reduce waste ‐ doesn't know how much unaddressed mail there is.

A very rough guesstimate

Using figures published in the Direct Marketing Material Waste Prevention report it's possible to calculate the volume of addressed junk mail. It's a tricky calculation and the numbers may be a couple of billion items or so out:

Year Addressed Unaddressed Total
2003 4,212m 11,875m 16,087m
2005 3,978m 11,870m 15,848m
2008 3,463m 9,034m 12,497m
2009 3,281m 8,431m 11,712m

If the figures are more or less accurate it would confirm the downward trend. Since 2003 the volumes of addressed and unaddressed junk mail have dropped by 22.1% and 29.0%, respectively.

How much junk do I get?

According to the Office for National Statistics there were 50,243,000 people of 16 years or older in the UK in 2009. That means the average adult got 65 pieces of addressed junk mail in 2009:

3,281,000,000 / 50,243,000 = 65.3

There were 25,837m households in 2009. So, the average household got 127 pieces of addressed junk mail:

3,281,000,000 / 25,837,000 = 127.0

A guestimated 8,431,000,000 pieces of unaddressed junk mail were posted through our letterboxes - that's 326 pieces of junk per household:

8,431,000,000 / 25,837,000 = 326.3

And so the average household got 453 pieces of junk mail in 2009. That's nearly nine pieces of junk mail per week:

127.0 + 326.3 = 453.3 / 52 = 8.7

Almost all advertising mail is unsolicited (as opposed to solicited). As we have seen, it's estimated that 71.4% of all addressed junk mail is unsolicited. Unaddressed junk mail is always unsolicited, and so over 90% of the total volume of junk mail is unsolicited:

3,281,000,000 x 71.4% = 2,342,634,000 + 8,431,000,000 = 10,773,634,000 / 11,712,000,000) * 100 = 92.0%

Impressive as the calculations may look, it should be remembered that the data used (i.e. the volumes of addressed and unaddressed junk mail) can't be verified.

Businesses and junk mail

Of all addressed junk mail about a fifth is sent to businesses. The table below shows the volume of addressed junk mail sent to people and businesses; the percentage increases / decreases; the total volume of addressed junk mail; and the share of 'business to business' junk mail.

  People (#) People (%) B2B (#) B2B (%) Total (#) B2B (%)
1998 3,123m   891m   4,014m 22.2
1999 3,283m + 5.1 1,062m + 19.2 4,345m 24.4
2000 3,516m + 7.1 1,148m + 8.1 4,664m 24.6
2001 3,706m + 5.4 1,233m + 7.4 4,939m 25.0
2002 3,939m + 6.3 1,249m + 1.3 5,188m 24.1
2003 4,240m + 7.6 1,198m - 4.1 5,438m 22.0
2004 4,222m - 0.4 1,196m - 0.2 5,418m 22.1
2005 4,002m - 5.2 1,132m - 5.4 5,134m 22.0
2006 3,937m - 1.6 1,091m - 3.6 5,028m 21.7
2007 3,690m - 6.3 965m - 11.5 4,655m 20.7
2008 3,483m - 5.6 870m - 9.8 4,353m 20.0
2009 2,891m -17.0 672m - 22.8 3,563m 18.9
Source: Trends in consumer and business direct mail volumes, March 2010

If you're a sharp reader you'll have noticed the figures in the second column &ndash 'People (#)' – are different from the figures shown in the first table on this page (the one that shows how much addressed junk mail is sent to people). The numbers come from different sources, and the difference is exactly 1.01%. What explains this difference I do not know.

The grant total

If we add up the total volume of addressed junk mail sent to people and businesses and the guesstimated volume of unaddressed mail we get some idea of how much junk mail is produced annually. The percentages shown in the last column of the table below is the decrease in the total volume of junk mail relative to the total volume in 2003:

Year People Businesses Unaddressed Total +/- (%)
2003 4,240m 1,198m 11,875m 17,313m  
2005 4,002m 1,132m 11,870m 17,004m - 1.8
2008 3,483m 870m 9,034m 13,387m - 22.7
2009 2,891m 672m 8,431m 11,994m - 30.7
Last updated: 
4th August 2011