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.

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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.”

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