Yellow pages_Flickr_Lulu VisionAs part of its “Zero Waste” initiative, Seattle leaders are trying to make it easier for residents and businesses to stop the flow of unwanted phone books to their doorsteps. Last week, Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien proposed new rules to create a yellow pages phone book “opt-out” registry.

Yellow page publishers, who would have to register with the city and pay a $100 fee plus a “recovery fee” to cover disposal costs, would be obligated to respect the registry and cease delivery to the folks on it. If they failed to do so, they could lose their registration to work in  Seattle. 

The phone book rules, supporters at Zero Waste Seattle say, would be the strongest in the nation.

How big of a problem are the chucked phone books? Here are some numbers to consider:

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    • Approximately 550,000 yellow pages are delivered in Seattle each year.
    • That comes to about 13 pounds of phone books per household (or even 15 pounds in this case).
    • Phone books totaled 2.7 percent of material collected by weight in curbside recycling in 2005.
    • It costs as much as $600,000 to dispose of the phone books, which are either recycled or dumped in the trash.
    • Creating an opt-out registry would cost about $30,500
    • When O’Brien told constituents to drop off their unwanted phone books at his office, he collected more than 700 of them before ceasing the offer.

    In addition to the costs of recycling the books or sending them to the Eastern Oregon landfill where Seattle’s trash goes to die, there are the additional wasted resources used for the paper to make the phone books and the fuel used for their delivery across the city.

    Residents can already opt out of phone book delivery (betcha didn’t know that, did you?), but you have to opt out with each of the various publishers, and there’s no fine or incentive for publishers to respect peoples’ requests to cease delivery. Thus, anecdotally at least, people keep getting unwanted books (check out this great Sightline post with on-the-ground reporting to illustrate the problem).

    When I visited the opt-out website, it first asked for my zip code, then gave me the names of four yellow pages publishers delivering books in my area. Three offered online sites for opting out in which I had to give my address, phone number, and two cases an email address. The fourth publisher required that I call to cancel delivery. Not a wildly convenient process overall.

    The Yellow Pages Association has issued a press release in response to the proposed legislation. The trade group argues that the existing opt-out option is sufficient, that the proposed fees unfairly target their industry, that there is no way to resume delivery if a resident wants to get off the opt-out list, and that the association is working to produce more sustainable books using recycled material and wood chips.

    The new rules would really help cut back on the amount of unwanted phone books (which, I might add, are often delivered in plastic bags—another refuse non grata)—though in terms of reducing the trash stream, a more effective policy would be an opt-in program. So far that idea hasn’t gotten much traction.


    Phone book photo courtesy of Flickr user Lulu Vision under a Creative Commons license.