Is it illegal to recycle standard mail addressed to, presumably, a previous tenant of an apartment?

Context: I have received the mail for someone who I assume is a previous tenant of the apartment I live in. I have tried writing Not at this address and Return to sender on them and the mail carrier continues re-delivering most of them to my mailbox. Most of the mail is AARP stuff, so I assume it's standard "junk" mail (though they are addressed specifically to the person and do not include "or current resident").

On this question there were two US-based answers:

  1. It's a crime to throw away mail
  2. It's only a crime if it's first-class mail. It's ok to recycle if it's standard (bulk/junk) mail.

A question on Quora similarly distinguishes between first-class and standard mail. The problem is, the person who answered that it's a crime to recycle a previous tenant's mail provided a source (Cornell) and that source starts with

Whoever takes any letter

It does not distinguish between first-class and standard mail. Whereas the answers on Stack Exchange and Quora that say it's ok to recycle standard mail do not provide sources.

Am I safe to assume the mail carrier returning the mail to me is a sign that it's ok for me to recycle them or do I need to keep dropping the ever-increasing stack of mail back into the mail system?

  • The "Cornell" source is the text of the actual law as found in the United States Code. Cornell just happens to host a widely used site that includes a complete copy of the U.S.C. Jun 14, 2020 at 20:29
  • "It's only a crime if it's first-class mail" - that's not what the other answer to the linked question says. It says it's a serious crime when it's first-class mail and that you can probably just throw it away yourself if it's standard mail, as that's almost certainly what will happen anyway (not that you're legally allowed to do this).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 15, 2020 at 9:33
  • 3
    This seems like an exact duplicate of the question you linked to. If the answers on a question aren't satisfactory, the recommended approach is not to post a separate question, but rather to leave a comment or add a bounty to get it clarified. The user who posted the second answer is a moderator here, so they're probably quite likely to clarify or back their answer up in response to a comment.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 15, 2020 at 9:35
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    Does this answer your question? Is it illegal to throw away the previous tenant's mail? Jun 15, 2020 at 17:39
  • 1
    It's mentioned in the comments on one of the answers, but worth adding here: the mail is probably coming back to you because it is being fed back into the mail stream, where a previously stamped routing barcode is scanned and sending it back to the same address. You need to take a sharpie and black out any bar codes on the envelope.There may be more than one, including one that is very long (3-4 inches) and short (1/2 inch) printed at the very bottom on the front of a standard envelope. Then cross out the recipient name, write "NSP" and deposit in a big blue mail receptacle. Jun 17, 2020 at 1:18

3 Answers 3


As indicated here, throwing away mail is the crime of obstructing mail. There is no exception for "junk mail" i.e. standard mail. It is possible (virtually guaranteed) that an individual postmaster or the USPS has a different disposition of the two kinds or mail when returned, but that is about USPS and not you. It is highly unlikely that you will find an official statement to the effect that it is "okay" to violate the law in the case of disposition of returned standard mail, even if in fact there is virtually no chance of being prosecuted for recycling.

I assume that the junk mail is not addressed to "or current resident", or simply "Resident", because then the letter is addressed to you and you can do what you want.

  • 2
    I think you missed something. Junk mail usually identifies the addressee as "John Z. Xmith or current resident." If it says "...or current resident", then by policy it is not to be sent to John Z. Xmith's new address. The current resident is considered the addressee. Jun 14, 2020 at 21:08
  • 7
    If throwing away the mail is a crime, what are you supposed to do with it? Would returning to sender (with cost to the sender) be a legal alternative? Storing it for the next years is not feasible, especially if new mail keeps coming in.
    – Mast
    Jun 15, 2020 at 7:24
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    @sleske Typically writing "not at this address" or "return to sender" works for me, but as mentioned in the question, for these I've done that and they keep getting delivered back to me.
    – Ryan
    Jun 15, 2020 at 16:42
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    @Ryan have you tried asking the postmaster why these pieces are being repeatedly delivered to you?
    – phoog
    Jun 15, 2020 at 17:04
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    Wife worked with USPS -- She writes "NSP" on the envelope (No such person) and scratches out any bar codes so that it will not be auto-sorted upon return.
    – Aww_Geez
    Jun 15, 2020 at 19:29

Junk mail usually identifies the addressee as "John Z. Xmith or current resident." If it says "...or current resident", then by policy it is not to be sent to John Z. Xmith's new address. The current resident is considered the addressee.

  • 1
    I assume it's "junk" mail, but they are addressed specifically to the person and do not include "or current resident". I've updated the question to clarify that.
    – Ryan
    Jun 14, 2020 at 21:24
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    @Ryan : Are you sure that's not in some obscure place on the envelope? That actually happens sometimes. Jun 14, 2020 at 21:38
  • I just looked through them all and they are only addressed to the person. It appears to be mailers trying to get this person to sign up for AARP, which I believe is only for people above a certain age.
    – Ryan
    Jun 14, 2020 at 21:44
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    If someone who's 20 years old is employed by the AARP to type addresses on their mailings, and they mail that person his paycheck, then it would not be intended only for people above a certain age. But of course you've seen the envelopes and I haven't, so your impressions must supersede my speculations. Jun 14, 2020 at 21:47
  • That's a fair point. I had meant the comment on age more that this may be an instance of "junk" mail where it's targeted advertising as opposed to being sent to someone + "or current resident". I looked at them again and several of them say, "AARP membership offer enclosed" or things about offering car insurance they can sign up for.
    – Ryan
    Jun 14, 2020 at 21:52

This is how to STOP past resident mail…

First class - visit the USPS and ask for form 3575Z to be filled out for the individual. If they are receiving mail in different name variations (Thomas vs Tom) have a superstar form filled out for each variation.

Non-first class mail is deemed trash by the USPS. They will throw it away if you write RTS, Not at this address, etc.

Just contact the sender and remove the name/address from the senders mailing/marketing list. If the mailer showed up in your USPS informed delivery account - attach the mailers image as reference.

If you feel uncomfortable opening this type of mail - Google the return address.

If you feel uncomfortable throwing away this type of mail - do NOT place in your mailbox. Just take it to the post office and they will throw it away for you. Don’t give your mail carrier more work!

Non-first class mail examples - marketing/junk, presorted STD, “or current resident”, EDDM/ECRWSS/ECRWSH, charity, political, non-profit.

NOTE: non-first class mail is unable to be forwarded - so we ALL are receiving this type of mail at EACH of our old addresses.

NOTE: if the mailer has the wording “or current resident” - guess what - you ARE the current resident - remove name/address from the mailing list.


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