Seattle might soon start cracking down on unwanted phone books in the city. There is currently a debate over whether Seattle should adopt an opt-in policy—which would deliver phone books to only those who requested them—or an opt-out policy that requires people to tell the phone companies not to deliver the White or Yellow Pages.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Seattle Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee asked city officials to explore an opt-out plan for Yellow Pages and junk mail next year. But the committee also signaled support for an opt-in approach toward the end of the meeting, noting that it may not be legal. The committee directed Seattle Public Utilities—which presented a report on reducing junk mail and unwanted phone books—to investigate the legal ramifications for crafting potential legislation this summer.

A number of people from Zero Waste Seattle spoke in support of an opt-in policy. Getting rid of unwanted junk mail and phone book directories falls among the Seattle City Council’s zero waste goals this year, having already banned Styrofoam service-ware and approved compost bins for food scraps in the city.

The enhanced opt-out strategy would see the city enter into a contract with CatalogChoice, a non-profit which would re-route web traffic from the city and King County websites to its own website, where people will be able to pick the phone books, catalogs, and mail listings they don't want. There could also be a city ordinance requiring phone book publishers to honor opt-out requests. “One of the main advantages of CatalogChoice is that it provides data on opt-outs showing waste tonnage avoided,” said Dick Lily of SPU. CatalogChoice also boasts the largest number of mail and phone book distributors, almost double that of the Direct Marketing Association. “It’s one-stop shopping,” Lily said.

The disadvantage: It will cost the city $10,000 to set up the online program and $20,500 in operating costs annually, including $10,500 for publicity.

According to a 2008 USPS Household Survey, junk mail accounts for nearly 100 pounds of paper disposed or recycled per household annually. Another source lists 41 pounds for every American adult every year. CatalogChoice puts the number of phone books at 12 to 13 pounds per household per year. Research carried out by SPU shows Seattle’s approximately 275,000 households generate 15,125 tons of paper from junk mail and phone books. The cost to ratepayers, If it was all recycled at a net $140 per ton, would be around $2 million, or almost $8 per household, Lily said.

Although most phone book companies offer opt-out services, many people complain they don’t work. “We have seen their level of inefficiency—opt out doesn’t necessarily lead to no phone book on your front porch next year,” Lily said. Despite the advent of Internet advertising, the Yellow Pages Association remains adamant that the phone book industry is not shrinking. “We may overrate Internet use, there may be families using phone books, or they may be more in use in rural areas," Lily said.

More after the jump.

Phone book publishers argue that requiring people to request phone books will harm local businesses that advertise in the Yellow Pages. SPU suggested other strategies for getting rid of unused junk mail and phone books, including promoting only free opt-out services, requiring by law that Yellow Pages provide opt-out services, and establish a fee for phone book publishers.

“The phone book companies are trying to do an opt-in for White Pages, so why not Yellow Pages?” asked Heather Trim of Zero Waste Seattle, which recently launched an opt in campaign and opposes the contract with Catalog Choice.

SPU Director Tim Kroll said that although an opt-in program would be the most effective, it was his “implementer’s conservatism” that was keeping him from recommending it. Kroll said with opt-in, he was unsure what the city’s role “as an enforcer would be.”

“We are just saying we could start out with opt-out and see how it goes—we are flexible,” Kroll said.

City council member Mike O’Brien, who chairs the SPU and Neighborhoods Committee, said he was interested in learning more about the option of charging an advanced recovery fee for every phone book delivered in the city. The money generated from this would go toward the city’s zero-waste fund. SPU will return to the City Council with more information on an opt-in policy and an advance recovery fee by the end of the month.