Seattle Breaks Up With The Yellow Pages

Seattle Breaks Up With The Yellow Pages

Seattle has instituted some tough restrictions on yellow pages, those commercial phone books filled with ads for local businesses.  White pages will continue to be printed and distributed free to all Seattle residents, because it is a state law.  (Raise your hand if you didn't know that!  I did not know that.)  But in a significant move towards becoming a Zero-Waste City, Seattle is requiring that the yellow pages be delivered on an opt-in basis from now on.

This is an important move, and it was made with a surprising degree of finesse.  Despite significant push-back from the producers of yellow pages, like Dex and The Yellow Pages (it's a trademarked name).  From the publisher's perspective, commercial phone books are a big money-maker. 

As a yellow pages producer, you charge every company for the ability to appear in your pages.  And your rates are linked to circulation rates.  The more homes you deliver your phone books to, the more you can charge your clients. 

Unfortunately for the city, but in a lucky break for the producers, there is no end-of-life cost accounting.  When a Seattle resident recycles their old phone book, it costs the city money.  Money which comes from taxes, which are ultimately paid by Seattle residents.  In a way, we are all paying to recycle our own unwanted phone books.

Not having to pay for the back end makes phone book production a lot more profitable.  And if you just blindly distribute your phone books to every Seattle resident, you can claim wildly inflated numbers for your circulation.  You may be delivering phone books to half a million people, but a lot of those people will never even crack the cover.  It's a huge waste, no matter how you slice it.

From this point forward, the city will require phone book producers to only deliver commercial phone books on an "opt in" basis.  Meaning that if you want a phone book you can still get it, but you have to ask for it specifically.  Furthermore, phone book companies may have to pay a fee per book to help defray the cost of their inevitable recycling.

This is a big victory for the "end of life" crowd.  A lot of people are saying that manufacturers should take responsibility for disposing of their products once they are done.  Annie Leonard's latest movie hits this message hard, insisting that computer manufacturers take responsibility for the toxic waste which is a dead computer.

It also sets an interesting precedent.  Imagine if junk mail could only be delivered on an opt-in basis.  Every time I go to the post office to pick up my mail, I end up tossing 75% of  it into the recycling bin beside the front door.  And that bin is always full.  We think of junk mail as being free, but we're the ones paying to recycle it in the end.  And since when did I ask to get a fistful of advertising circulars every week, anyway?

Photo credit: Flickr/Trevor Coultart