The Heap

Yellowed Pages

Everyone more or less concedes that phone books have long outlived their usefulness. And yet they WILL NOT GO AWAY. A great (and highly amusing) article published today in Slate looks at some of consequences of continuing to produce a massive stack of paper that almost nobody uses.

Of particular interest:

That waste is a truly weighty issue. In Portland, Ore., alone this year, the Dex directories tipped the scales at 10.5 pounds per pair, consumed the equivalent of 49,779 trees, and could be stacked nearly 12 miles high into the stratosphere. And that's just one of several directories that Portlanders receive. On a national level, the figures become mind-boggling. If we assign the not-terribly-scientific figure of just more than three pounds to the average directory, then the 615 million volumes produced last year come out to 1 million tons of phone books. Still, the Yellow Pages Association claims that phone books produce only 0.3 percent of the household waste stream—while "newspapers, in comparison, represent 4.9%." Alas, customers ask for newspapers, and they do offer an opt-out—it's called canceling your subscription.

It doesn't help that the phone book industry's history of recycling has been … well, nothing to call home about. NYNEX, for instance, once worked with wastepaper merchants to recover about half of all directories but gave up in 1959, with the onset of throwaway consumerism. After New York's attorney general inquired about recycling plans in 1971, NYNEX responded that it was looking into the matter. They must have looked very hard, since they didn't start again for another 19 years. Even today, phone books, with their bindings and low-grade paper, make a tough sell for recycling plants, and many areas lack substantive recycling options.

I don't know about you, but I'm thinking phone book fort.