If you're reading this blog, then you probably have no use for a phone book. You can get any phone number you need with the browser you're using right now just as easily as you navigated here to mentalfloss.com. As of 2007, more than half of American households had broadband internet access. And yet, 615 million phone books were distributed in the U.S. last year -- nearly two for every man, woman and child.
It's a thrice-yearly ritual in my neighborhood: Yellow Pages from Verizon, DEX or AT&T are unceremoniously dumped on doorsteps up and down the street. Many remain there for weeks to come; of those that eventually disappear, most are tossed. Of those that are tossed, a national average of less than 40% end up in the recycling bin. That's a lot of waste. Another, perhaps flossier, way to think about those 615 million phone books is that, stacked end-to-end, they would circle the Earth more than four times. By some estimates, nearly 5% of landfill waste falls under the category "directories."
So they're obsolete. Unsightly. A pain to dispose of. But how wasteful are they? A recently California study estimates that to make 500 phone books, you need the pulp from somewhere between 17-31 trees; you need about 7,000 gallons of water, and you need enough kilowatt hours of power to run a three-bedroom home for about 3-6 months. (And that's not even taking into account the gasoline you need to truck those books right to your doorstep.)
A lot of people agree, it would be great to get fewer phone books. Maybe even none; I currently have zero in my house and am getting along just fine. But the companies that make the various competing Yellow Pages don't make that very easy. The circulation numbers they use to determine the cost of ads in their books depend on how many homes they can reach, and it's $14 billion a year industry -- not easily dismantled or retooled without political or economic pressure being brought to bear. Right now, there are laws in various states being considered that would make mandatory a do-not-drop list -- similar to the national do-not-call list -- though many anti-directory advocates would prefer an opt-in system rather than an opt-out system.
The one kind of phone number I can't seem to find online? The one that connects you to the phone book companies -- so I can opt out of receiving their directories. (I found several listed; none were working.)
Has anyone out there figured out a way to stop these accursed books?