Yellow Fever

As phone books pile up on doorsteps across the nation, the battle rages to eliminate what some see as a 20th-century fossil

Photograph by Alma Shaw
RESOURCE OR LITTER: Phone book companies are fighting legislation that would limit delivery—and ad revenue.

It was the final straw. After coming home to yet another stack of yellow pages blocking the entrance to her apartment building last year, Aimee Davison couldn’t take it anymore. “Dear Yellow Pages, I’m breaking up with you. I don’t need you anymore,” she posted on Twitter, after stepping over the pile of unsolicited books. “Stop showing up at my house, you tree killer.”

But her disdain didn’t stop at the digital realm. A few days later, as Davison drove past an empty lot, she began to imagine it filled with a mountain of yellow pages—a striking visual testament to the waste caused by the clunky, space-hogging, 20th-century artifact known as the phone book. “Damn, I should do something like that,” she thought.

So she did.

In the fall of 2010, 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 over 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 over 25,000 views on YouTube.)

“They’re junk mail,” says 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 conversation may just lead to the end of the big yellow book. According to a recent survey by the Kelsey Group, 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 and a child’s booster seat has been tolling louder ever since “Google” became a verb?

Marin County supervisor Charles McGlashan thinks so. “Given the new internet era we live in,” he says, “for the most part, phone books are not worth distributing to every household on the assumption that they are being used.” McGlashan, who championed the recent successful plastic bag ban in Marin, hasn’t opened up a phone book in over a year. He believes people should be allowed to request a phone book if they want one, effectively ending delivery to everyone else.

McGlashan’s idea is what’s known in the rising battle over the telephone book as an “opt-in” program—the strictest of the solutions proposed. The phone book companies, who turn a tidy profit on yellow pages advertising, are fiercely fighting opt-in programs, instead hoping to convince people that “opt-out” programs would have the same effect. Meanwhile, the stacks of unwanted phone books continue to pile high.

Yellow page distribution in the U.S. currently stands at 540 million, more than the entire population of the United States. That statistic alone accounts for the stacks of phone books gathering mold on streets and sidewalks across the country, and one for which we can blame the Supreme Court.

Those over the age of 30 remember a time when there was just one phone book, published and distributed by the telephone company. But in the 1991 ruling Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Company, Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor ruled that the information and facts collected in the phone book are not subject to copyright, explaining the contents as “devoid of even the slightest trace of creativity.” The decision opened the floodgates, allowing anyone with Quark and an entrepreneurial spirit to republish the Yellow Pages and collect advertising revenue.

Denny Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, says that his group canvasses over 70,000 doors a year, and that he can’t even estimate how often canvassers see phone books sitting untouched on doorsteps. He says it’s time to look at ways to eliminate the waste. “Sonoma County is an incubator for environmental ingenuity,” says Rosatti. “Especially given the digital age we are in, our options for information are robust.”

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.

Debbie Head, interim branch manager at the Sonoma County Library, still sees five people or so a day requesting to see phone books. “People can use the internet, but that doesn’t mean they are particularly skilled at it,” says Hand, pointing out how phone books create the categories for the reader.

Ammon Shea, author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads, says 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,” says 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.” Shea is right. According to the 2009 “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States” report by the EPA, newspapers generated about 5,060 tons of waste, while telephone directories generated 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 antiphone book ordinances. In October 2010, Seattle passed a popular law that made opt-out programs mandatory.

If Supervisor David Chiu has his way, San Francisco will be next in line for a phone book ordinance. One and a half million phone books are sent out to San Francisco residents every year, according to estimates by Chiu’s office, and the majority end up in the recycling bin. 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 in the city. The law would require Yellow Page 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 page 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 a similar legislative proposal by California State Sen. Leland Yee in 2009. The Yellow Page Association lobbied heavily against Yee’s statewide mandatory opt-in program; it was trounced on the senate floor. (Antiphone book bills have also died in North Carolina, Florida and New Mexico.)

In an act that to an average observer might appear counterintuitive, the Yellow Pages Association now sponsors the website where one can opt-out of receiving directories from their local publishers. The website boasts links to sustainability reports and information about how to recycle phone books.

But promoting an opt-out program is a calculated move by the association. Shea addresses the issue of opt-in vs. opt-out in his book, outlining that only 7 percent of the population in Norway chose to opt-out of receiving phone books when a similar program was implemented there—and this in a country where environmental consciousness is a way of life.

“Very few people will opt-out because of laziness,” says Shea, blaming human nature. “Whenever you ask people to do something, it’s going to be a very low percentage that actually do it.” Unless more aggressive opt-in programs are implemented, he suggests, phone books will continue to pile on front steps.

So it makes sense for the Yellow Pages Association to voluntarily create a page that purports to help, when in reality they’re deflecting attention away from the very action that would eliminate the problem. David Chiu’s opt-in solution would make the phone book publishers do all the work, meaning that soon, the Yellow Pages, at least in San Francisco, could be the ones making the first call.

One of Chiu’s major beefs with the phone-book industry is the sheer amount of recycling needed to take care of unused or out-of-date books. Ken Wells, former executive director of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, says the system in the North Bay for recycling telephone directories has been highly efficient and convenient since a 1993 overhaul. Still, even as someone who continues to use the phone book (“I’m a little bit old-school,” he says), he sees a need for an altered approach.

“An opt-in program will dramatically reduce the number of phone books that are produced and distributed,” says Wells. “I want one, but I don’t mind them asking me. The people who want them will get them, and otherwise they don’t. It’s a pretty optimum system in terms of resources.”

According to Ammon Shea, the phone book isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, no matter which type of law is enacted. 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,” says Shea.

But if activists like Davison have their way, the fall of the phone book will be inevitable. “I get frustrated, because there are alternatives,” says Davison. “If people are still receiving the Yellow Pages when they don’t use them anymore, they are complicit in the environmental costs of printing the book.”