EarthTalk: Can we do without telephone books?

Internet makes them obsolete, say some. So how do you keep all that paper from being delivered to your home?

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Q: I came home today to yet another set of phone books at my front door. I feel they are a great waste of paper, especially in this electronic age. How can I stop getting them? Better yet: How can we get the phone companies to stop making them?
Bill Jones, via e-mail
A: Many of us have little or no use for phone books anymore. While such directories are helpful for that occasional look-up of a service provider or pizza place, consumers and businesses increasingly rely on the Internet to find goods and services. Directory publishers usually make their listings available online as well nowadays, but the books still make money from the print ads they contain.

According to the nonprofit Yellow­Pages­­­Goes­Green.org, more than 500 million phone directories – nearly two books for every American – are printed and distributed every year in the United States, taking with them some 19 million trees.

Upwards of 1.6 billion pounds of paper are generated to produce the books from those felled trees, using 7.2 million barrels of oil to create them (not including the gasoline used for local deliveries). Producing the directories also uses up 3.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and generates 268,000 cubic yards of solid waste that ends up in landfills (not including the books themselves, many of which eventually end up in landfills in areas where recycling is not available or convenient).

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There is no centralized way for consumers to opt out of receiving phone books – no phone book equivalent of the National Do Not Call Registry, which is aimed at telemarketers. Most individual publishers of yellow and white pages have “no deliver” lists they can add you to, but they cannot be held accountable if the books show up anyway. The YellowPagesGoesGreen.org website can find the publishers of your local or regional directory and ask them not to deliver on your behalf.

The site warns that there are no guarantees with this, either.

For their part, directory publishers say they have made great strides in recent years to operate in an environmentally responsible manner. The Yellow Pages Association (YPA) and the Association of Directory Publishers (ADP) have collaborated on formal guidelines calling for source reduction in the production of directories, environmentally sensitive manufacturing practices, and enhanced recycling programs. Some 90 percent of industry members have adopted the guidelines so far. Examples in practice include the use of water-soluble inks and recycling-friendly glues, not to mention forsaking the use of virgin trees in their books (many books are made from recycled phone books mixed with scrap wood).

Because of widespread and increasing use of the Internet, many sources of information – from newspapers and magazines to newsletters and, yes, directories – are forsaking print for online placement. So it may be only a matter of time before phone directories follow that lead.

In the meantime, asking to be removed from the delivery list of your local directory publisher may help to hasten that probability.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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