Inspiration for this rant landed on doorsteps in my area a few weeks ago, and has been sitting there, becoming increasingly soggy and unsightly ever since. Digging around the internet I found that many other people are also upset about the massive yellow and white phone books forced upon them. Some areas even have four or five phone directory companies distributing books to each residence! Maybe the contract companies hired to drop off the books do not have the resources to consider individual addresses in metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, where I reside, but the litter created globally by the mass amounts of unwanted phone books seems inexcusable. Wanting to know who I could point a finger at, I set out to find the root cause of the issue.
A PERVASIVE PROBLEM
My exploration started a few months ago when I signed up on a website called yellowpagesgoesgreen.org which claims it will act on your behalf to stop phone books from being delivered. Despite whatever efforts that site, or other petition sites like PaperlessPetition.org might try to initiate, I now understand that many publishers do not accept third party opt-out requests. I searched high and low for another way to get my name off the delivery list for my local area Verizon Superpages, but any information I found was confusing and did not guarantee my opt-out. I don’t want to discredit the efforts of directory publishers that are using safer ink, promoting recycling, using recycled pulp content (40%) and reducing the weight of the directories, but frankly I expect more from the same companies that helped bring us progressive paperless technology like smartphones, and digital billboards.
With multitudes of resources available online, in addition to cell phone compatible search applications, I struggle to justify the consumer need for over 500 million phone books printed each year. Compared to a hard copy, web directories are superior since they have additional features like consumer reviews or maps and directions. Not surprisingly, statistics point to a decline in number of people using paper directories. In response to Consumerist.com poll asking “Should Consumers Be Able To Opt-Out Of Phone Book Deliveries,” 98.5% of the voters said they want the choice to opt-out and that they use the internet for directory information.
Photo by Tim Welch in Orlando, FL
RECYCLING PHONE BOOKS IS NOT ENOUGH
Case in point: Simply recycling phone books is not enough. I spoke with an executive director from America More Beautiful, who is in partnership with AT&T to facilitate information on phone book recycling. She receives many calls from suburban residents who do not have single-stream recycling and whose local recycling centers are reluctant to take phonebooks because of the dwindling demand for paper pulp in a down economy. You can find out online if AT&T Yellowpages recycling is offered in your area or call 1-877-88RECYCLE. In addition to the decrease in demand there are also reports stating that in some states, 85% of phone books get absorbed into non-recyclable trash stream. That just makes me sick.
HOW TO CUT DOWN ON PHONE BOOK WASTE
1. Change the Distribution System
Chin up. The good news is that there are many ideas floating around the newswires for addressing the issue, and plenty of barnstormers out there pushing the message to the top. An extensively explored suggestion it to make all phone books strictly on-demand, so that you would be required to request a book it you wanted one. A variation of this concept could be to make the books available for pick up at community centers, libraries, recycling centers where you can discard old books, or other designated locations.
2. Just Say No
A second option is to create an opt-out registry similar to the Do Not Call Registry, designed to stop phone solicitation, or the DMA Choice program, that lets you control the types of direct mail you receive. The YellowPages Group of Canada, and smaller publishers like Impact Directories, have initiated an opt-out option through an online form.
Another method of discouraging drop-off is proposed by the UK based 192 online directory company, who has designed a “No Phonebooks” door sticker. This idea could have flaws for apartment buildings that get bombarded with stacks of books filling the lobby.
3. Service Providers Should Take Responsibility
I add a last suggestion for reform that could help increase recycling and also solve the issue of unwanted books littering doorsteps: Service providers that distribute the directories should also be responsible for collecting and recycling outdated books and books that are not taken indoors.
Photo by Willie Stark in Arizona
THE PHONE BOOK COMPANIES RESPOND
I presented these ideas along with snapshots of the abandoned phonebook clutter, to media contacts at the biggest players in the directory business. I was actually expecting deaf ears, but instead I received responses that were enlightening.
The media relations representative from Idearc Media LLC, the company responsible for the Verizon Superpages, quickly replied with an informative and apologetic email. He said that the “bottom line is it shouldn’t be happening and we are working diligently to make sure it doesn’t happen.” If you wish to change your delivery options for the Superpages, contact your local publisher or call Idearc directly at 1-800-888-8448. Superpages recycling information is available online or on the inside cover of your directory.
Another powerhouse behind the big books is RHDonnelley, responsible for the Dex Yellow Pages, AT&T Real Yellow Pages in Illinois and Indiana, and EMBARQ Yellow Pages. I received fantastic news from Dex Brand Directories – just last month, they kicked off their “Select Your Dex” program, where consumers can specify the type and number of Dex Directories they receive. You can change your options online or call 1-866-60-My-Dex. Their website also provides information on recycling your old Dex diretory.
I also found out that AT&T has been pushing for strictly on-demand delivery service in many areas. They faced controversy two years ago when the state feared a raise in costs for 411 call operations and contested the proposal for residential Whitepages to be strictly on demand in Raleigh, NC. Unfortunately, organizations like The Yellow Pages Association spend millions lobbying against on-demand directory programs. Due to the powerful lobbying, proposals from state legislators to make unsolicited delivery of phone books illegal were unsuccessful in Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Washington. You will be happy to know that earlier this year AT&T restarted the discussion for on-demand distribution in North Carolina and additionally in Missouri. Similar, successful programs already running in Texas, Georgia, and Ohio have proved that less than 2% of the population requests print directories when given the option, so we hope they are able to broaden the reach for on-demand circulation.
THE ROAD AHEAD
While thousands of phone books lie homeless on the streets, consumer frustration is not likely to disappear easily. It is promising to know that the big yellow book companies are beginning to fight the up-hill battle toward a greener agenda and several are already initiating programs. If you don’t currently have an opt-out, or on-demand options with your local directory company, get on the horn and let them know you want the choice!
Lead photo by Arek Taylor in San Diego