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Monday, June 14, 2010

Time to Hang Up the Phone Book

Posted by on Mon, Jun 14, 2010 at 10:05 AM

After focusing on compost bins, bans on Styrofoam service-ware, and possibly even plastic bags, the Seattle City Council is ready to tackle unwanted phone books. “I don’t use phone books anymore—it’s a waste of resources and a waste of money,” says council member Mike O’Brien, who is looking into an opt-in policy for Yellow Pages so that they would only be delivered to those who request them. “The question is how many people are still using phone books?” O’Brien asks. “I suspect a handful of people still are.” He has begun talking with phone book distributors and Seattle Public Utilities to figure out a way of how to take “a bunch of these outside the waste stream." He plans to announce a plan before the end of summer.

The program is part of a 2010-2011 five-point zero waste strategy, which includes mechanisms to reduce or ban disposable bags, construction waste, and used carpets from the landfill. O’Brien, who chairs the Seattle Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee, joined the grassroots organization Zero Waste Seattle at last weekend’s Green Fest to talk about phone books.

Phone Book Fairy Ellie Rose at the Seattle Green Fest
  • Zero Waste Seattle
  • Phone Book Fairy Ellie Rose at the Seattle Green Fest

As it stands, several phone companies maintain a voluntary program that allows people to opt-out if they don’t want phone books delivered to their homes—and they argue that is sufficient. “An opt-in approach would make it much harder for millions of local, small businesses to market themselves to the community and would hurt the publishers who employ thousands of people,” says Doug McGraw, a YPA spokesperson. He says that, despite shifts to use the internet, 75 percent of adults use a print directory every year. "We believe offering opt-out choices make sense for people who prefer to find local businesses via mobile or online.”

But O’Brien and others say opt-out programs aren't working.

“We get calls from people saying that they called the phone book companies to opt-out but they didn’t honor it,” says Heather Trim of Zero Waste Seattle. “They tell us ‘please make them stop.’ People want to know if it’s actually going to work.”

Jeanette Henderson, a zero waste activist who lives in Queen Anne, says she got involved in the opt-in campaign after getting fed-up with phone book companies ignoring her opt-out requests. Henderson decided to do a spur-of-the-moment survey of unused phone books within a 10-block radius in her neighborhood in January. “I saw all these phone books piled up in front of apartments and condo complexes and I started knocking on doors and ringing bells and talking to people, and virtually everybody told me, ‘We don’t want them, we don’t need them, we can’t make them stop,'” she says. Out of a total of 66 residential units, Henderson saw 61 that had phone books sitting outside gathering dust. Although SPU couldn’t confirm the number, Henderson estimates that some three million Yellow Pages phone books are delivered in Seattle every year. “We are not saying phone books are all bad, we don’t want them banned, but if we don’t want them or want fewer of them, then an opt-in program would really help,” she says.

O’Brien met with the representatives of the Yellow Pages Association and Dex (former Qwest Yellow Pages)—one of Seattle’s largest phone book companies—who said that they went out to retrieve unclaimed phone books. “They recognize it’s a bit of a problem, but are not going as far as we’d like them to go," O'Brien says. "Once we analyze the situation, we’ll tell them ‘Here’s the outcome, would you like to work with us or do we have to enforce it on our own?’”

More after the jump.

YPA's McGraw adds that state lawmakers often rejected phone book legislation because of fear of negative economic impact. National statistics released by YPA show that about 585 million Yellow Pages were distributed to homes, offices, hotels and businesses in 2009 from more than 200 publishers. When asked if people still used Yellow Pages, McGraw says, “Yes, in the billions.”

SPU’s Solid Waste Director Tim Kroll said his department was investigating both opt-in and opt-out options. “There are pros and cons for both,” Kroll said. “Opt-in is the most effective thing as far as reducing waste—it will result in the greatest benefit. The law department hasn’t weighed in on any limitations that an opt-in policy might have in terms of a local city.” Kroll said that were at least three phone book companies in Seattle. When asked how many phone books were distributed in Seattle, Kroll said that according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, phone books amount to five pounds per person. CatalogChoice estimate yellow pages at 12 to 13 pounds per household per year, he said. According to research carried out by Sightline Institute, a local sustainability think tank, a year's worth of unsolicited advertising to one Seattle resident included 15 pounds of unwanted phone books, which was 30 percent of the total waste collected.

O’Brien is currently focusing on the Yellow Pages, which advertises businesses. Zero-waste activists in the city say that White Pages—which carries residential phone numbers—are already on their way to becoming obsolete. A campaign by White Pages has garnered more than 38,000 supporters calling for legislation that would allow people to opt-in if they wanted the White Pages delivered to their homes. Right now, most states require phone book companies to deliver White Pages to people’s houses as a service.

Andy Shane of SuperMedia, which provides small and medium-sized businesses in Seattle a chance to advertise on the Internet and the Verizon Yellow Pages, said that his company has turned their Yellow Pages into something people would want to keep. “Part of the frustration with print phone books is that it has similar information,” he said. “But consumers are keeping our books and using our books because we stand by our advertisers’ services. And we have made opting-out very easy. I don’t see the need for an opt-in program.”


Comments (25) RSS

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Vince 1
Another paper domino falls.
Posted by Vince on June 14, 2010 at 10:14 AM · Report this
playswithknives 2
when i worked on western avenue, we'd get carpet-bombed with phone books once a year. i'd get 5 or 6 of them dropped off in front of my little cafe, and the spice shop across the street would get even more. if i was around, i'd gather up the stack they left me and carry them back to their delivery van.
Posted by playswithknives on June 14, 2010 at 10:16 AM · Report this
SchmuckyTheCat 3
Opt-in please!

These companies that deliver the books have no idea who opts in or out. They hire immigrants who don't speak english. The immigrants drive up to an apartment building in a van loaded with phone books. They buzz apartments until someone lets them in and then start piling books into the lobby of the building. The books sit there until someone gets sick of looking at them and throws them in the recycling.

There is no opt-out here. There is no honor here. It's just plain waste. The more books that get delivered, the more the publishers can claim people read them, and then the more they can sell to businesses who advertise in them. ENOUGH.
Posted by SchmuckyTheCat on June 14, 2010 at 10:18 AM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 4
My apartment building gets two huge stacks of phone books, and they seem to reside near the entrance for a few weeks until the landlords decide that they want to clean up and throw them out.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on June 14, 2010 at 10:18 AM · Report this
We will crush their attempts to make ad revenue killing trees to print stuff they distribute free. More coverage in this week's Stranger, free at a newsstand near you.
Posted by gloomy gus on June 14, 2010 at 10:23 AM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 6
Great idea. Now if there was only some way to correct all that incorrect information that's all over the Internet. You have no idea how many wrong numbers I get.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on June 14, 2010 at 10:25 AM · Report this
very bad homo 7
I get about 50 pounds worth of phone books a year and I never use any of them. Maybe we can use them all to soak up the oil spill.
Posted by very bad homo on June 14, 2010 at 10:54 AM · Report this
irl 8
If Yellow Pages dropped off 1 frickin' book a yr that would be fine but there are 2 or 3 or 4 other orgs that drop off 2-3 books. Seems we get about 10 a year. One for the east side, one for d'town Seattle, one for King, one for Snoho. . .we don't need them all. I end up using them as fire starter for my grill, my woodstove or my fire pit.
Posted by irl on June 14, 2010 at 10:57 AM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 9
Unless the city/state/federal makes delivery of unsolicited mail like this illegal, why on earth would it stop?

People pay money for advertising, so Yellow Pages/whomever keeps sending us the damn books. They won't stop until their hands are legally forced.
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on June 14, 2010 at 11:08 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 10
But ... if we get rid of all those phone books, what will I throw at Fnarf?
Posted by Will in Seattle on June 14, 2010 at 11:16 AM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 11
@10 Gideon's Bibles?
Posted by TheMisanthrope on June 14, 2010 at 11:20 AM · Report this
I very briefly delivered phone books a number of years ago when I was desperately underemployed. If the process still works the same as then, basically you were hired to deliver a specified number of books in whatever neighborhood you were assigned. There were supposed to be people who would follow up with random spot-checks to make sure books were delivered properly, and not for example dumped in big piles at a handful of locations, as several previous comments have suggested, or worse, simply thrown away. But, so far as I was aware, the spot-checks were handled with about the same level of efficiency as the deliveries themselves, that is, almost none.

Nowadays, when I find the books on my front steps, they don't even make it inside, but go directly into the recycling bin.
Posted by COMTE on June 14, 2010 at 11:28 AM · Report this
Purocuyu 13
well, I took this as an excuse to opt out of junk mail. Hadn't done it for my new address. Thanks slog.
Posted by Purocuyu on June 14, 2010 at 11:35 AM · Report this
Amnt 14
As 3 and 12 said, opt-out won't work because of how the phone books are delivered. I know I haven't used a phone book in years, when I see it at the door it goes right back out to the recycle.

They do make fun targets though, maybe next time they are delivered I'll grab a few from the neighbors (who also don't want them) and put a few holes in them before they go to the recycle bin.
Posted by Amnt on June 14, 2010 at 12:16 PM · Report this
w7ngman 15
"An opt-in approach would make it much harder for millions of local, small businesses to market themselves to the community and would hurt the publishers who employ thousands of people"

I think that's called "waste".
Posted by w7ngman on June 14, 2010 at 12:22 PM · Report this
Honestly, phone books aren't any worse than the rest of the junk mail.

A years worth of phone books is probably not even equal to the waste of a months worth of junk mail.

Forcing them to honor opt-out requests would alone make a big difference

It would help just knowing in advance which day/week they're being dropped. Then people could just hang signs "no phonebook please".

Here's a simple plan if they have to switch to opt-in. Instead of passing out phonebooks, they'll pass out door hangers. "Tick the box and leave this doorsign up if you want phonebooks"
Posted by Lack Thereof on June 14, 2010 at 12:40 PM · Report this
Hell, I'd like to opt out if most of those damned pizza flyers and Geico ads as well as the yellow pages.

The last time I used the yellow pages, the company (an ISP) didn't even have a basic listing. And white pages? Given that most of the folks I know don't even have a landline anymore, I'm not sure what the use is.
Posted by Chris B on June 14, 2010 at 12:54 PM · Report this
I remain undecided about plastic and/or paper bag fees or bans.

Phone books! Ban them! Lynch the people that print them! Or we can burn them at the stake with their own phone books!
Posted by SeattleSeven on June 14, 2010 at 1:42 PM · Report this
Fnarf 19
Our phone books aren't delivered by illegal immigrants; they're delivered by chain-smoking white heroin addicts in extremely clapped-out white vans. I caught one as I was coming out of the door once, and I almost died from the profound reek that was coming off him, more than just cigarettes -- I think his copious dripping sweat itself was 9% alcohol.

Even I, a traditionalist who still uses the Yellow Pages once or twice a year, agrees that they've outlived their usefulness. The Qwest ones maybe, but the terrible shitbooks from Verizon are useless even to people who DO like paper phone books.
Posted by Fnarf on June 14, 2010 at 1:59 PM · Report this
Dougsf 20
Same boat as #4.

I've always wondered if phone book circulation rates—and therefore, presumably, ad rates—are audited like newspapers and magazines are, or if they're reporting fraudulent circulation numbers based solely on the number of books dropped off.

I can't imagine it's terribly expensive to place a Yellowbook ad, but they're probably still overcharging.
Posted by Dougsf on June 14, 2010 at 2:00 PM · Report this
Most small business owners in Seattle will tell you that the yellow pages are expensive and worthless.

My no. 1 source of new business is the Internet. No. 2 is word of mouth. And "word of mouth" often means Twitter.
Posted by SM9 on June 14, 2010 at 3:55 PM · Report this
The phone directory industry is going to try to play the "You're hurting Mom and Pop businesses!" card when facing any restrictions on their current carpet-bombing delivery practices. Pure crap. Mom and Pop are paying the directory companies their hard-earned dollars for advertising they aren't getting. If the most current edition of the yellow pages goes directly into the recycling or garbage, what did Mom and Pop get? The bill for paper production, printing, and delivery.

The bottom line is that the $31 billion phone directory industry is in large part a waste-for-profit machine. They fear Opt-In because they know that a large percentage of households don't want their product. And as for the industry-generated stat of 75% of adults using a phone book each year?! Where was this study conducted? A nursing home in Pheonix? NO WAY do 75% of Seattleites still use this antiquated means of getting information.
Posted by WorldShifting on June 15, 2010 at 9:32 AM · Report this
#15 poster is on some phone book company's payroll. Lame try on the waste spin:

"An opt-in approach would make it much harder for millions of local, small businesses to market themselves to the community and would hurt the publishers who employ thousands of people. I think that's called "waste".

Those small businesses pay a lot of money to advertise in the various yellow pages directories, and they aren't getting the exposure they're being told they're getting. That's the reason the industry doesn't want Opt-In. Opt-In would reflect the real numbers of who's still using the phone books. A lame Opt-Out that puts the responsibility on every single resident to get ahold of the phone directory companies themselves means that all the people who could care less about waste won't take the time to call or go online to opt-out. They'll just keep throwing the books in the garbage as they come. People who use the books will ask for them, because they have value to them. If people don't care enough to make a one-time request to keep getting a product delivered to their front door for the rest of their lives, they aren't using that product.

I wonder if poster #15 would also argue that it is wasteful to cut back on jobs producing DDT and asbestos? It is wasteful to cut jobs that make waste. Good point.
Posted by WorldShifting on June 15, 2010 at 10:00 AM · Report this
So all of you on here must be smarter than every advertiser in the phonebook. Why would they pay to advertise in the phonebook if it didn't generate business for them? Sales reps in the phonebook industry must be the greatest salesmen and women there are if they can sell advertising that you people say doesn't work.
Posted by Shaggy1 on June 15, 2010 at 2:53 PM · Report this
That's fine if the yellow pages are working for people. They can keep getting the phone books. The point is to stop delivering them where they aren't wanted. "You people!" What kind of planet do you want to live on? Global warming's a hoax, right?
Posted by WorldShifting on June 15, 2010 at 7:51 PM · Report this

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