The Seattle City Council's Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee unanimously approved a bill (.pdf) yesterday afternoon to mandate an opt-out program for yellow page phone books. If approved by the full council, as looks likely, the legislation would prohibit yellow pages publishers from distributing books to people who don't want them and charge them a fee for recovering the recycling cost.

But the bill still faces opposition from yellow-page companies. If passed, it will be the first of its kind in the country, and phone book publishers are scared of other cities adopting similar bills. A couple of weeks ago, phone book flacks stormed City Hall to oppose the opt-out registry and 40 cent recovery fee for yellow pages. They even threatened legal action if the legislation passed, citing a free speech violation if they weren't allowed to litter doorsteps with their gigantic ad books.

But Council Member Mike O'Brien, the bill's sponsor, refused to make any major compromises to the opt-out nature of the program. The only change: Instead of the 40 cent fee, it was broken down into 14 cents for every phone book delivered to the city and $148 for every ton of yellow pages distributed in the city to cover the cost of running the opt-out system and recycling. (It costs the city $148 to recycle a ton of mixed paper, and O'Brien thought it only fair that the phone companies pay for it.) He said that the city is confident that the fee structure would not be challenged in court.

The ordinance does not say anything about publishers having to recover phone books from people who didn't want them. In the past, Dex has picked up unwanted phone books after receiving complaints, but that hasn't always worked. If a publisher delivers a phone book to people who have opted out, he will be investigated and charged a penalty established by Seattle Public Utilities.

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The opt-out system will take effect by April 2011, if it's passed. Once an address is filed in the opt-out registry, phone-book companies cannot deliver to the address until the business or resident moves or they ask to be taken off the list.

Needless to say, yellow pages companies are sulking. "We are disappointed the current proposal does not take our" proposal into consideration, said YPA director of public policy Amy Healy. But environmental advocates are ecstatic. "I think it will be hugely popular with citizens of Seattle," said Jeanette Henderson of Zero Waste Seattle.

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