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Image: Pile of yellow pages.
Alan Towse  /  Ecoscene via CORBIS
According to the Yellow Pages Association, about 615 million phone books were distributed in the U.S. last year. If you stacked the books on top of each other that would be a pile 19,000 miles high. Stacked end-to-end, he says, it would circle the earth more than four times.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/2/2008 4:17:29 PM ET 2008-04-02T20:17:29

It happens several times a year in neighborhoods all across the country – telephone directories magically appear. They’re tossed on porches, dropped by mailboxes, and piled up in the entranceways to apartments and condos. In rural areas, they’re sometimes left along the side of the road. No one asks if you want them. They just show up!

You can say “no" to telephone sales calls. You can reduce the amount of junk mail you get. You can even stop unwanted offers for pre-approved credit cards. But what if you don’t want any more phone books?

Keith Childs contacted me when his neighborhood in Renton, Wash., got blanketed with phone books. “It looks terrible. It’s just plain ugly and I’m tired of it,” he says. “These phone books will sit here for weeks or months. They’re an eyesore.”

When Denver architect Paul Karius needs a phone number he jumps on the Internet. Even so, he still got a pile of them at his office from three different companies. “That’s ridiculous!” he says. Karius is so upset about the waste, he’s launched a Web site: stopthephonebooks.com.

According to the Yellow Pages Association, about 615 million phone books were distributed in the U.S. last year. Being an architect, Karius wanted to visualize what that would look like. If you stacked the books on top of each other (he assumed the average thickness is 2 inches) that would be a pile 19,000 miles high! Stacked end-to-end, he says, it would circle the earth more than four times!

Phone books are not dead
The companies that publish phone directories realize they have a public relations problem on their hands. They also know a growing number of people use the Internet to find phone numbers. But they insist print directories, a $14 billion dollar a year industry, are still a valuable resource for both consumers and business owners.

“For local businesses, the print directory is still a very important means of connecting with their customers,” says Peter Larmey, a spokesman for the DEX directory.

The Yellow Pages Association claims about 46 percent of the adults in this country use a phone book in an average week.

“The print directory has a long, long future in front of it,” says Larry Angove, President and CEO of the Association of Directory Publishers. “While Internet Yellow Pages usage is going up, it’s still only a fraction of what printed directory usage is today.”

Something has to be done
The National Waste Prevention Coalition is working to make it easy for you to opt out of getting unwanted phone books. “For some people, it’s just five or 10 pounds of waste," says Tom Watson, a recycling expert with the Solid Waste Division in King County, Wash., who coordinates the coalition.

At least 660,000 tons of phone books are distributed across the country each year. “That’s a sizeable amount of paper when a lot of it is unwanted,” Watson says. And the recycling rate is not that high. Even in the Seattle-area, a national leader in recycling, it’s estimated that less than 40 percent of old or unwanted phone books go in the recycling bin. The rest wind up in the trash.

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The coalition has been working with directory publishers to develop an opt-out system that would let people choose which phone books they don’t want. Watson says it would be similar to the Do Not Call Registry. “This would be a do not drop list. Do not drop the phone book on my front porch.”

Publishers know that if they don’t do something soon, a patchwork of laws at the state and local level could be passed to force them into action. Lawmakers in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, North Carolina and Minnesota have already examined the issue. So far no laws have been enacted, based in part on industry assurances that it would respond voluntarily.

Just two weeks ago, the City Council in Cambridge, Mass., unanimously passed an ordinance that instructed the city manager to figure out a way to start an opt-out system. “I really think it’s an idea whose time has come,” says City Councillor Sam Seidel, who introduced the ordinance.

The directory publishing industry says it is proud of its environmental record. It promotes recycling of old phone books and uses them to make new books. For Councillor Seidel that’s not enough. He says unwanted directories waste too many resources to produce, deliver and recycle.

What happens now?
In January, the Yellow Pages Association and the Association of Directory Publishers called on their members to start opt-out programs. Those guidelines call for a universal opt-out system to be in place by 2010.

Some companies already have opt-out phone numbers and are ready to take requests. Others are working out the logistics. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job considering it’s only been three months and we already have publishers that distribute 95 percent of the books in the country committed to this program,” says Amy Healy, director of public policy at the Yellow Pages Association.

Healy says the programs are being designed to give people maximum flexibility. The goal is to let you say you don’t want any books, just one book a year, or specify the type of directory you want – maybe a community book rather than a big urban book.

“Directory publishers are not in the business to print directories that no one uses and just recycles or worse yet, throws away,” she says. The industry understands that if the program is not easy to use, lawmakers are likely to revisit the issue of mandatory regulations.

Tom Watson gives the industry credit for taking this first step. But he’d like to see it happen sooner and he’d like to see it verified. The National Waste Prevention Coalition vows to keep pushing to make that happen.

My two cents
Making it easy for people to opt out of unwanted phone books is something that should have happened a long time ago. I applaud the industry’s effort to respond to customer frustration, but I’m also skeptical.

I’ve seen how these books are distributed. Publishers use independent contractors who race through neighborhoods. I find it hard to believe that they will slow down in order to keep track of “no thank you” requests. Especially when there is no penalty for getting it wrong.

This week, I opted out of the various phone books that come to my house. I’ll be interested to see what happens the next time that the phone book fairy visits my neighborhood.

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