Ban the Phone Book? Seattle Did

New recycling laws could keep unwanted phone books from cluttering your shelves.

November 30, 2010

Is it time to turn the page on paper phone books?

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When was the last time you made use of your local phone book—not an online version, but the actual paper book? Chances are, it's been a while. But you probably still have one (or more) sitting around your house collecting dust, delivered by a publisher who didn't really care whether you wanted it or not.


Early last month, the city leaders of Seattle approved an ordinance that would make such unsolicited deliveries illegal. Part of an effort to move the city towards zero waste, the new recycling law would allow residents to decide whether or not they want to receive the yellow pages, and require the publishers to pay to recycle them. Whether the law goes into effect remains to be seen, but this is one sign that cities are sick of shouldering the burden of recycling waste. And more of them are starting to force manufacturers to pick up some, if not all, of the tab.

In the meantime, you can stop getting the phone book if you know how to opt out.

THE DETAILS: The Seattle city ordinance would require the various publishers of yellow pages phone books to establish a city-administered opt-out website so people can choose to receive which of the three business phone directories they want, or none at all. The publishers would also be required to pay a licensing fee to cover the cost of operating that site, as well as a $148-per-ton fee for any books that are delivered to residents; that fee is the amount it costs the city to recycle phone books. (The law doesn't apply to standard residential phone directories, as Washington state law requires that phone companies publish those.)

Not surprisingly, publishers of yellow pages phone books aren't happy about the new law. Two companies that publish the books, as well as an industry association, have sued the city on the grounds that it infringes on their First Amendment rights to free speech and being able to communicate with whomever they wish. Adding to their complaint, the industry association has already developed a nationwide opt-out site, so a second city-administered site would be redundant. And they're concerned that, should other cities follow Seattle's lead, multiple city-administered sites would just create confusion.

WHAT IT MEANS: The ordinance is still being debated in city courts, but it's scheduled to take effect on January 1. Who will win remains to be seen, but it is a sign that city and local governments are increasingly weary of coping with cumbersome recyclables. The Seattle ordinance falls into a class of legislation usually referred to as "producer responsibility" laws. "What they're designed to do is single out the materials that are the most difficult to handle in the waste stream," says Kate Sinding, Esq., an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in producer responsibility. "They also shift the responsibility for managing difficult or problematic elements in the waste stream off taxpayers onto producers." Because consumers don't choose to get the phone books, the Seattle officials stated, the books' publishers are essentially asking taxpayers to pay to dispose of an unwanted product. For the same reason, Seattle asked the state to establish a statewide do-not-mail registry to prevent unwanted commercial mail from getting recycled on taxpayer dollars.

Requiring manufacturers to recycle their own products is already common in the electronics world, with 22 states now enforcing e-waste (electronic waste) laws to prevent toxic heavy metals and flame-retardant chemicals from leaching into water supplies. And in August 2009, a coalition of county governments came together to support legislation that would require pharmaceutical companies to recycle unused prescription drugs.

"The next wave that we're going to see is on packaging in the waste stream," says Sinding, who says that in some European and Asian countries and in Canada, governments require manufacturers to pay to recycle plastic packaging. If such requirements were instituted in the U.S., consumers who bring reusable packaging to grocery stores could find themselves a few pennies richer. "When producers are required to internalize the cost of recycling, that gets passed on to consumers," she says. "It takes the cost burden off the general public, i.e. taxpayers, and puts it directly on people who consume those products." In other words, people who buy single-serving containers of yogurt and bottles of water and soda would have to start paying for that convenience, while people who reuse packaging pay a lower cost.

Producer-responsibility laws are slowly gaining momentum here, says Sinding, but until they're implemented, here are a few ways to reduce unwanted waste:

• Ditch your phone books (if you don't want them). The industry-supported Yellow Pages Association has developed an opt-out website so you can tell the publishers which, if any, yellow-page phone books you want. Visit it at

• Block unwanted mail. You can opt out of receiving unwanted mail as well. Visit the Direct Marketing Association's website, which allows you to stop catalogs, credit-card offers, and direct-mail offers. The process is a bit time-consuming and cumbersome, but well worth the effort if you want to control the flow of direct marketing to your mailbox.

• Whittle down your catalog list. allows you to opt out of any catalogs you no longer want, but there's another website that does the same and is a little easier to navigate:

Tags: policy watch