The good, the bad, the ugly: phone books

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My “No Soliciting” sign has been effective at keeping most door to door sales people away but much to my dismay, last week I was greeted to a phone book lying on my front step.  Historically when a phone book arrives I grumble and then move on.  This time, I decided I wanted to see what options exist to prevent this unsolicited delivery and to learn what the real environmental impacts are of phone books.  To me, receiving an unsolicited phone book is the equivalent of a stranger leaving their broken electronics on my front step.  Neither are something I want and both require some care to recycle appropriately.

The Good:  In the last 10+ years phone book companies have responded to the public pressure to evolve their practices and reduce their overall environmental impact.  Hibu is one of the major players in phone books and have helped create the opt out website for those that do not want to receive phone books.  Hibu also has an entire environmental sustainability plan and publishes their emissions data and more.  In addition, many phone book manufacturers have shifted to soy based ink, non-toxic glues, paper suppliers with sustainable forestry certifications, and to using a high percentage of post-consumer recycled material.  Some cities have also put their own ordinances in place to help address the issue that include things like having the phone book company have to manage and opt out website and pay per book recycling fees and penalties for inappropriate deliveries.  In San Francisco they have implemented an opt-in system where only residents registering to receive one get one.  Shifting the costs of the issue back to supplier is generally an effective means of invoking change.  In short, the phone books themselves have become much more environmentally friendly and the options available for recycling have improved dramatically.

The Bad:  While there has been much progress, there are no national standards and as a result many manufacturers of phone books will only change when they are forced to or when it makes economic sense to do so.  For many, environmental sustainability is not high on the priority list.  When faced with scrutiny some companies will make arguments about how a phone book not recycled has a much smaller environmental impact than an computer used to look up the same information not being recycled.  While an accurate argument, it is clearly not apples to apples.  It is like saying it is okay to pour oil down the storm drain because it has less of an environmental impact than the Exxon Valdez did.  In Minnesota, phone books have been banned from being placed in municipal solid waste since 1992.  Despite that statute, telephone directories remain a problem for waste managers as only about 55% of Minnesota phone books are recycled.

The Ugly:  In the U.S. it is estimated that 4,680,000 trees are used annually for phone books, that is the equivalent of 14 football fields of forest per day.  On average, only 40% of the content in phone books is from post-consumer recycled material.  Nationwide over half of phone books were sent to landfills or combustion facilities with recycling rates for them only at 44%.  There are enough phone books created each year in the U.S. to measure 106,700 miles when lined up end to end. This means they would circle around the earth about 4.28 times.

While phone books clearly have some value as the college kids in the picture demonstrate with their make shift couch, there are opportunities for optimizing their sustainability and making the distribution more targeted.  For now, if you do not want to receive phone books you can register at https://www.yellowpagesoptout.com/ and pick and choose what phone books you want to receive.  In the U.S. you can also go to https://www.catalogchoice.org and select which phone books and junk mail you do not wish to receive.

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