When is the last time you used a real phone book? By real, I mean the kind made of paper that you can touch and open with your hands. I cannot remember the last time I did because I typically use the computer or my cell phone to look up everything. I actually don’t have any phone books in my office or at my house because they get recycled as soon as they are delivered to my doorstep.

To me, real phone books are old-fashioned, a thing of the past. Some are better utilized as a doorstop or stepping stool. The first telephone directory was only a single page issued in February 1878 and now they weigh between three and 10 pounds each. With evolving technology and the disconnection of traditional land line phones, fewer people rely on the original phone book. According to surveys, only 11 percent of households use real phone books.

Yet, they continue to be printed and distributed to residents with land lines as supposedly required by some state laws. I think I spent several hours trying to find a list of states with such laws, but I had no luck.

More than 650,000 tons worth of phone directories are delivered to households through the U.S., according to the Product Stewardship Institute and more than 400,000 tons are disposed of every year. Locally, more than 300,000 telephone directories are distributed every year in Horry and Georgetown counties.

Unused phone books represent a waste of resources, production, transport, disposal, etc. etc. etc. All of these wasted resources create negative environmental and economic impacts, even if they are made from recycled paper. You can see an illustration of the lifecycle of a phone book at the Earth 911 Web site at www.earth911.com

According to an article in USA Today, since 2007, states that have granted permission to quit printing residential listings or that have requests pending include: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Telephone companies such as Verizon and AT&T have worked with states to reduce the size and printing of phone books, citing these wasted production costs.

The Yellow Pages Association claims that demand for phone books has declined 29 percent since 2006.

So what about the waste? According to waste characterization studies by the Environmental Protection Agency, paper and cardboard takes up 28.5 percent of the space in landfills and in 2010, 26.74 million tons of paper and cardboard was thrown away. While phone books represent the lowest percentage of the municipal waste stream at 0.3 percent, the weight represents much more in the cost of transportation.

The weight was costing the City of Seattle so much at $148 per ton that the city created an opt-in program in 2010, in which phone book publishers were required to pay a fee to the city. This fee was part of an ordinance that would make such unsolicited phone book deliveries illegal.

What can you do?

You can choose to opt-out of receiving a phone book on your doorstep. Log on to the Yellow Pages Association Web site at www.yellowpagesoptout.com to register, but this system has no official oversight and doesn’t guarantee the effectiveness of your choice.

You can also recycle. Phone books are made from paper and thus get recycled into items such as insulation, roofing surfaces, packing materials, paper towels and more phone books. HTC, in partnership with the Horry County Solid Waste Authority, will recycle phone books of all sizes and types until May 4. Schools, public and private, have the chance to win prizes for recycling the most phone books. You can drop off your phone books at any HTC office location (I don’t recommend dropping them off at the schools). For more information about the recycling program, call 369-8498. More than 40,000 phone books were recycled during this program in 2011.


the author

Originally from Virginia, Jennifer C. Sellers is passionate about sustainability and conservation in South Carolina and throughout the world. She earned her BA in English from Coastal Carolina University and her MAS in Environmental Policy and Management from the University of Denver. She is a university sustainability coordinator that implements programs and teaches people about going green and being sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @MyGreenGlasses

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  1. Karen on April 5, 2012

    I have to admit, the shrinking size of the telephone book left my husband and myself disappointed this year. We rely on it to prop up the ficus tree behind our television so that the green foliage can reach the tall dark corner of where the ceiling meets the wall. With this year’s slim version, we would need at least three or four telephone books to create the desired effect. For our household, the phonebook has TRULY lost all usefulness.