Never Mail These Things in Paper Envelopes
Have you ever expected a small item in the mail, only to receive an envelope with a hole in it and no item to be found? It happened to me when a childhood friend said they would send me a special pen, and it happens to the recipients of untold numbers of spare keys, according to one postal worker who took to Reddit to warn the rest of us.
People sometime assume the item is stolen, which would make sense if it were something valuable, like jewelry. But many of the lost items are coins, unlabeled keys, and candy. They aren’t targeted by thieves. The culprit is a robot.
Why small objects don’t get through mail sorting machines
This video of a mail scanning machine shows the problem. Envelopes are whizzed along a set of conveyor belts that make sharp turns as they wind through the machine. Anything that can’t make the turn will rip out of the envelope, dropping to the bottom of the machine, or sometimes jamming up the works (and wrinkling the next several letters in the process).
What not to mail in a paper envelope
According to the U.S. Postal Service, the following items are not permitted in paper envelopes:
“other similar odd-shaped items”
The postal employees chiming in on the Reddit thread say they also see a lot of:
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Keys and keychains
Lockets, bracelets, rings
“COINS! Oh, god, the coins”
Memory cards, including small video game cartridges
A list found on several university mailrooms’ websites (like this one) says that the USPS does not allow paperclips or pins in mail. I couldn’t find that rule in any of the official USPS publications, but I admit it seems like a good idea not to mail loose pins, and to use staples instead of paperclips if you want to be safe.
Why writing “process by hand” doesn’t keep small mailed items safe
There’s a myth that you can write certain magical incantations on your envelopes to keep them out of the big bad machines. But the truth is, most envelopes don’t get handled or read by a human being until after they’ve been through the scanning machine (if they even get read by a human at all). So “process by hand” and “do not bend” are just so many screams into the void.
How to properly mail keys, USB drives, paperclips, and other small objects
If you need to mail a small object like a key or some jewelry, use a padded envelope. Partly because these are fed into different machines, and partly because the padding doesn’t rip as easily as a plain paper envelope.
Instead of a padded envelope, you could also use a stiff cardboard mailer, or make your own mailer by securing the small items to something larger, like sandwiching them between two pieces of cardboard. (One redditor said they successfully mailed a key by taping it to a chocolate bar.)
You can also request that an envelope be handled separately-not by writing something on the outside, but by bringing it to a human being at the post office. You’ll pay a non-machinable surcharge, and the postal employee will set it aside.