The Phone Book's Days Appear Numbered

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At the end of every year, a new telephone book, usually weighing a few pounds, lands with a thud on doorsteps across the country. The directory is estimated to consume millions of trees a year to produce. But with most Americans now carrying mobile phones, do we still need phone directories made out of paper?


In the U.S., we produce 804,000 tons of phonebooks every year. That's the statistic that comes from the EPA. It's over five pounds of paper for every man, woman and child, including those too young to pick up a phone. One California lawmaker says its time to stop printing so many phone books.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen reports.

AMY STANDEN: Places like this are where old phone books go to die.

Mr. ROBERT REED (Spokesman Sunset Scavenger Company): Phone books presented a special challenge. There's a lot of them, a lot more than we need.

That's Robert Reed, a spokesman for Sunset Scavenger. They process recycling for San Francisco residents. He says some books are so heavy and so numerous, that his facility had to put in a whole separate system just to deal with them.

Mr. REED: They had to put in a special conveyor belt just for phone books.

STANDEN: And that is a waste of resources for a product on the verge of extinction, says California State Senator Leland Yee.

State Senator LELAND YEE (Democrat, California): Many individuals no longer use the White Page. They use the Internet. They use other kinds of resources to get at phone numbers.

STANDEN: This month, Senator Yee is introducing a bill to make White Pages opt-in for all of California. That means you'd have to register online or call an 800 number to order a copy. If you didnt ask for the White Pages directory, you wouldnt get one. And that's a good thing, according to Scott Cassel.

Mr. SCOTT CASSEL (Director, Product Stewardship Institute): Bottom line is that these books do impact global warming.

STANDEN: Cassel directs the Product Stewardship Institute, an environmental group in Boston.

Mr. CASSEL: From the production of these books, the manufacture of these directories, the distribution of them and also the disposal or the recycling of them.

STANDEN: Cassel says a few communities have passed opt-in laws for phone books, but statewide efforts have failed. North Carolina, Florida and New Mexico are just three of the states where anti-phonebook bills died, partly due to pressure from phonebook publishers. But Leland Yee's proposal is different. It only addresses White Pages. Here's Charles Laughlin, an analyst with The Kelsey Group, a research firm in Washington, D.C.

Mr. CHARLES LAUGHLIN (Analyst, The Kelsey Group): I dont think there's a publisher out there who wouldnt prefer to get rid of their residential White Pages.

STANDEN: White Pages are required by law in most states. They generate little or no ad revenue. Yellow Pages, that's the phonebook industry. They produce $13 billion a year in ad sales. That's more than all magazine advertising combined. This industry has been so lucrative that there are now more than 200 Yellow Page publishers in the U.S. Each year, they print almost twice as many Yellow Page directories as there are people - more, says Laughlin, than many of us want.

Mr. LAUGHLIN: I think people rightly will get three books in their house are wondering, why on Earth do I need three of these?

STANDEN: On the other hand, say the publishers, why should phone books be any different than breakfast cereal or magazines? You use the one you like best.

Mr. NEG NORTON (President, Yellow Pages Association): And I think that's probably the biggest misperception about our industry, that people are not using phone books anymore, and that's just not the case at all.

STANDEN: Neg Norton is president of the Yellow Pages Association, the leading industry group for phonebook publishers. He says the problem with proposals like the one in California is that they make phone books opt-in rather than opt-out.

Mr. NORTON: We're seeing that probably, you know, 80 to 85 percent of adults continue to use print directories every year.

STANDEN: So why make that 85 percent do all the work? Better, says Neg Norton, to take the opposite approach. To that end, the YPA has set up a site called It puts consumers in touch with the local companies who print and distribute Yellow Pages.

Mr. NORTON: They can either, you know, opt out of phone books or even increase the number of phone books that they get.

STANDEN: And if extra phone books are what youre after, maybe youre collecting booster seats or garden mulch, you might want to stock up. Even the industry acknowledges that with Craigslist and online search sites, the days of the phone book are numbered.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen.

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