Saying Goodbye to the Yellow Pages

San Francisco became the first city in the country to ban phone books that many say are wasteful and outdated.

Back in May, Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, told NPR, “If the tenants don’t pick them up, the books collect down there in the lobby, which creates … not only a garbage hazard but a fire hazard. And there’s no reliance on either the owner or the resident manager to pick all of that up and recycle it.”

New was talking about the Yellow Pages, that stalwart of the landline era when looking up a commercial phone number meant flipping through page after goldenrod page, squinting at lines of six-point type to find the right listing. Today, it’s not easy being yellow in an era of green: Critics of the Yellow Pages say they’re wasteful, bad for the environment and about as useful as a mimeograph or card catalog.

And the more the books go unused, the more they pile up in apartment hallways, landfills and recycling centers. Last year alone, San Francisco received about 1.6 million Yellow Pages books for only 800,000 residents, creating nearly 7 million pounds of waste.

So in May, San Francisco banned the books. In a 9-1 vote, the city’s Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance to create a three-year pilot program limiting delivery only to customers who are at home to physically accept them or who give prior approval by phone, mail or sticky note. (San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee signed it into law just two weeks later, making it the first city in the country to ban what some have called a glorified doorstop.)

“The overdistribution of telephone directories results in an unconscionable waste of natural resources and costs the city over $1 million every year to process through our refuse system,” said Melanie Nutter, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, in a statement.

Of course, publishers of the phone books took issue. The ban will “put hundreds of San Francisco residents out of work, restrict small businesses’ ability to reach customers and disenfranchise seniors, as well as Hispanic, Chinese and LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] communities,” according to the Local Search Association, a trade organization of print, digital, mobile and social media publishers. For that reason, the ban’s lone dissenter, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, argued that an “opt-out system” would be a more even-handed approach.

San Francisco’s not the only place looking a little less yellow these days. In October, Seattle passed an ordinance allowing people to place themselves on an opt-out list for receiving the Yellow Pages. The city councilman behind the measure, Mike O’Brien, said Seattle spent about $350,000 a year disposing of unwanted books. Many other efforts nationwide are aimed at saving money by cutting down on paper waste. In addition to Seattle’s ordinance, a California-based nonprofit, Catalog Choice, has recruited five localities across the country to encourage their residents to opt out of receiving any unwanted junk mail.

Yellow Pages will almost certainly pull out of the market in San Francisco now, and perhaps eventually Seattle too. After all, who’s going to pay to list their business in the Yellow Pages if there’s no one left to let their fingers do the walking?

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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