Are phone books obsolete?

With digital resources available, do we still need the Yellow Pages?

Californians Against Waste’s Teresa Bui is just one local who questions the delivery of unwanted telephone books. In 2009, phone-book companies delivered unsolicited directories to more than 130,000 Sacramento residences.

Californians Against Waste’s Teresa Bui is just one local who questions the delivery of unwanted telephone books. In 2009, phone-book companies delivered unsolicited directories to more than 130,000 Sacramento residences.


To opt out of receiving telephone books, call: AT&T, (866) 329-7118; Verizon, (800) 888-8448; Yellowbook, (800) 373-2324 and select option 3.

As you flip open your phone to send a text, snap a photo, check an app or—what the heck—maybe make a call, keep in mind one vestige of the old days of rotary phones and land lines.

Most likely you can’t miss it, and possibly may trip over it on your doorstep. Yep, printed phone books—particularly Yellow Pages—still lurk, arriving annually like a ghost of 20th-century technology.

But as the phone books pile up unsolicited, and with so many digital resources available, is there a tipping point in addition to the tripping point of too many books? Anti-phone-book advocates would argue yes. Pointing to environmental concerns, activists are pushing for more choice about receiving the books.

“The issue is consumer choice,” said Teresa Bui, a policy associate with Californians Against Waste. “Many consumers do not want the phone books but they still receive them anyways, so the phone books end up getting tossed right into the garbage, or recycling receptacle, or used as door stopper.”

The phone books do take up space. According to one nonprofit, Campaign for Recycling, 660,000 tons of phone books were discarded in 2007 (based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures). The group also found that the production and disposal of phone books adds the equivalent of roughly 770 cars on the road each year in terms of emitted carbon dioxide.

Sacramento gets its fair share of these books, too. In 2009, the city’s Department of Utilities Solid Waste Services reported that phone-book companies delivered books to more than 130,000 residences annually.

To help its citizens handle the onslaught of unwanted phone books, the city of Sacramento and Sacramento City Unified School District used to sponsor a phone-book contest with local schools. In 2008, 21 local elementary schools collected and recycled more than 40,000 books. (Recycled books are then converted into paper, lumber, insulation, egg cartons and other things.) The city also encouraged residents to recycle them by noting that each ton of paper recycled saved 3 tons of paper along with 4,000 kilowatt-hours of energy and 7,000 gallons of water.

However, changes in school recycling and garbage rules forced the city to end the contest.

Some activists at the international level have become particularly fired up by the unsolicited-phone-book issue. Last year, Aimee Davison, a Montreal resident, had one particularly provocative idea. In the fall of 2010, the self-described “digital girl” Davison, with the help of friend Kyle McDonald, searched the streets of Montreal for discarded and unrecycled Yellow Pages—starting, of course, with the ones on her own doorstep. The two filmed the adventure, gathering books and opinions from people on the street regarding the relative usefulness of phone books along the way.

Davison and McDonald managed to easily collect more than 500 unwanted books. They stuffed their take into the back of a U-Haul and drove to the Yellow Pages offices. There, in a clever role reversal, they dumped the entire pile onto the sidewalk at the company’s front doors. (“Yellow Page Mountain,” a video that documents the stunt, currently has more than 25,000 views on YouTube.)

“They’re junk mail,” said Davison, on the phone from Montreal. “If they didn’t deliver the Yellow Pages, most people would forget about them. They wouldn’t miss them.”

Indeed, the combination of growing Internet savvy and increased consciousness about conservation may just lead to the demise of the big yellow book. A recent survey by BIA/Kelsey found that only 28 percent of teens said they would consult the Yellow Pages first when searching for local businesses. Is it a sign of the times that the death knell for the item most likely to be used as a computer-monitor prop has been tolling louder ever since Google became a verb?

In Sacramento, city spokeswoman Jessica Hess said, “We don’t get complaints about phone books, but as we do encourage people to reduce waste … we encourage them to opt out of getting phone books delivered or if they don’t want them to recycle them.”

But “opting out” means a resident has to make the effort to call the company before delivery and ask not to get the book. So it’s not likely to happen.

The late Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan champions an “opt-in” option, but phone-book companies, which turn a tidy profit on Yellow Pages advertising, are fiercely fighting such opt-in programs. The number of publishers has grown, too, after the Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that phone books are not subject to copyright, since they are “devoid of even the slightest trace of creativity.” The decision opened the floodgates, allowing anyone with design software and an entrepreneurial spirit to republish the Yellow Pages and collect advertising revenue.

Since then, the stacks of unwanted phone books have continued to pile high. Yellow Pages distribution in the U.S. for instance, currently stands at 540 million, more than the entire population of the United States, leading to the anti-phone-book push-back.

But might the rush to relegate phone books to the historical basement be too rash? Not everyone has access to the Internet or even a computer, and even those who do may not have the skills to efficiently sort through a list of Google results.

Ammon Shea, author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses but No One Reads, said that he is “loath” to see the White and Yellow Pages on the decline.

“I’m somewhat confused as to why this particular book arouses such umbrage in people,” said Shea, on the phone from New York. “Newspapers probably waste a considerable amount of paper, and yet there are very few calls from people saying that The New York Times should stop publishing,” he said, echoing numbers from the EPA that say newspapers generate about 5,060 tons of waste, while telephone directories generate 650 tons.

Yet newspapers offer a built-in opt-in system in the form of subscriptions, while Yellow Pages seem to invade our lives on a regular basis. Hanging up on these perceived space invaders might be the next step as cities across the United States begin to propose anti-phone-book ordinances. In October 2010, Seattle passed a popular law that made opt-out programs mandatory.

In California, the state Senate recently considered a state bill to require phone-book publishers to publish the opt-out phone numbers on the front cover of phone books.

“[Senate Bill] 920 died on the Senate floor [last year], due to industry opposition,” said Bui, of Californians Against Waste. “[Publishers lobbied] against S.B. 920, saying Yellow Pages were still used regularly, that the bill would kill jobs, etc.,” she added, while noting that Verizon is considering the option of providing a CD instead of a phone book.

“This year, there is no statewide legislation, but there is a local effort in San Francisco, an ordinance which would require the city’s residents to opt-in to Yellow Pages phone books before distribution,” Bui said.

Leading the charge for that ordinance is Supervisor David Chiu. Last month, Chiu declared Yellow Pages to be a cause of “neighborhood blight,” and proposed legislation that would effectively ban the distribution of unsolicited phone directories, estimated to be 1.5 million copies annually, in the city. The law would require Yellow Pages distributors to get approval from residents and businesses before delivery—an opt-in program—and offenders could face fines in the hundreds. If the ordinance is passed, it would the first of its kind in the nation.

The Yellow Pages Association, the trade group that lobbies for the $14 billion Yellow Pages industry, has already responded with claims in the San Francisco Chronicle that such an ordinance would be “an infringement on our constitutional rights—the right to distribute speech.” The same trade group, along with other lobbyists, helped to bring down S.B. 920. (Anti-phone book bills have also died in North Carolina, Florida and New Mexico.)

Shea stresses that the printed phone book isn’t likely isn’t going away soon. Even if the books are destined for the recycle heap, torn apart in YouTube stunts or used as parking stops, a large enough segment of the population still relies on access to the books rather than the Internet—plus, he notes, the billions of advertising dollars generated by Yellow Pages are enough to keep people in the business of advertising and being advertised to.

“It’s kind of an unstoppable force,” said Shea.

This article has been corrected from its original print version.