A jaundiced proposal

Pub date February 15, 2011
WriterCarly Nairn


An ordinance to ban unsolicited print Yellow Pages across San Francisco, proposed Feb. 1 by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, seeks to reduce waste and save money.

“Phone books are a 20th-century tool that doesn’t meet the business and environmental needs of the 21st century,” Chiu said as he introduced the measure in board chambers.

The ordinance would establish a three-year pilot program starting Oct. 1 in which the city would reduce the mass distribution of phone books, making them available only at distribution centers or to residents or businesses that request them.

A rally in support of the ban before the meeting included Rainforest Action Network’s founder Randall Hayes and California Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Mateo), who proposed legislation that failed to gain steam last year for making it easier for Californians to opt out of receiving phone books.

But the Yellow Pages Association refuses to be thrown out with the rest of yesterday’s trash. YPA Vice President of Public Policy and Sustainability Amy Healy said her group opposes the proposal but that she was encouraged that Chiu and his staff say they are open to working with the association.



Chiu introduced the ordinance, which is cosponsored by Sup. Scott Wiener, because of the potential effect it could have on reducing city waste, both in the city’s garbage bins and its treasury.

According to Chiu’s office, San Francisco receives about 1.5 million phone books a year. At an average weight of 4.33 pounds per book, the current distribution system creates about 7 million pounds of waste. If the production were cut in half for the city, it would save nearly 6,180 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year from polluting the air.

But it isn’t just the environmental cost that is wearing on the city.

Phone books are tough to recycle. With plastic inserts, bulky design, and low-grade paper, the books have to be presorted and recycled manually. It costs Recology, the company contracted with the city for waste disposal, $300 per ton to dispose of the city’s unused phone books, which in turn costs taxpayers about $1 million a year for their disposal.



The YPA has been sensitive to the environmental concerns, recently launching a website that allows a person to opt out of receiving a phone book.

But it is also suing the Seattle City Council over its Feb. 1 approval of a plan to charge Yellow Pages a 14-cent publisher’s fee per book and create an opt out system for the city, arguing the Seattle ordinance violates the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

According to a statement by YPA President Neg Norton, the association believes that “if don’t want a phone book, you shouldn’t have to get one.”

But YPA opposes the ban on unsolicited books, citing the jobs it would cost, the business community’s desire to “generate leads and revenue from ready-to-buy consumers,” and claiming the First Amendment “prohibits government from licensing or exercising advance approval of the press and from directing publishers what to publish and to whom they may communicate.”

Wiener has a different take on the matter, a stand he said he has already received lots of criticism for, including from some constituents who compared it to the board vote to ban Happy Meals last year. But he said this issue is very different.

“An enormous number of books dumped all over the city is a bad thing, and we should do something to address the issue,” he told the Guardian, noting that the ability to opt out isn’t good enough. “It’s not like the do-not-call list where it is directly annoying and people are more likely to take action … Stacks sit in apartment lobbies, and people don’t decide to opt-out.”

But YPA is also citing the public’s apathy as a reason the ban is unfair. “People don’t take the time to respond to e-mails,” Healy said. “It’s an unreasonable barrier to have a stranger knock on your door and ask you to take something.” The YPA claims that “seven in 10 adults in California use print Yellow Pages, so we do not believe a system that puts a burden on the majority of people to opt in is the best path for choice.”



Do people still value the Yellow Pages?

Healy believes they do, stating that advertising with the Yellow Pages gives businesses a “high return on their investment.” We asked some city businesses that still advertise in the Yellow Pages what they thought about the potential ban.

Barbara Barrish, manager of Barrish Bail Bonds, doesn’t see her customers using the Yellow Pages anymore. “We used to swear by the Yellow Pages. Now young people use the computers, or their Blackberries and phones.”

Although she has an ad in the print edition, Barrish said she wouldn’t advertise with the directory again and only did so this time because it slashed its prices. “It used to cost a lot more, but it cut its advertising costs by a third,” she said. “They gave me a good deal.”

When asked if she would request a copy if the ban goes through, she said she probably would. “I might grab a phone book if the computer is down.”

Daniel Richardson, an immigration attorney who advertised in the Yellow Pages until 2008, predicted the business community would kill or water down the ordinance. “You are talking about going up against AT&T and other major businesses,” he told the Guardian with a chuckle.

Richardson said he stopped advertising in the Yellow Pages because he didn’t get enough business. He believes people look to the Yellow Pages for criminal or personal injury lawyers, but not immigration attorneys.

Even pizza places, a staple of advertising in the Yellow Pages, are ho-hum about the usefulness of the Yellow Pages. Junior Reyes, who is in charge of advertising for Go Getter Pizza on Gough Street, believes the restaurant gets most of its customers from online. “We do a lot of advertising with other places and online,” he said. “The Yellow Pages isn’t our main source.”

But what about people who do use the Yellow Pages, particularly groups that are not big Internet users. Would they miss it?

David Bolt is the dean for academic affairs at Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville and producer of the PBS series The Digital Divide. He believes that banning the Yellow Pages may be a problem for certain groups, including the elderly, recent immigrants, and the poor — groups with the least access to Internet, particularly in urban centers.

“We should err on the side of giving as much information to the greatest numbers of people, especially to groups that may not be technologically literate,” he said. “Society should think about how groups could be impacted by this decision.”

But Barbara Blong, executive director of the Senior Action Network, said older people are becoming more tech savvy. She said computer classes and other resources have put many of the city’s seniors online. She questioned the concept that seniors are one of the largest groups affected by the digital divide, noting that seniors oppose wastefulness as much as anyone.

“We are against having a lot of Yellow Pages laying around,” she said. Blong also mentioned that seniors who do not use the Internet for contacts can use the public library or senior centers that have phone books on hand. “I don’t see it as a ban, but moving on so we don’t have a great deal of waste,” she said.

The ordinance also exempts foreign language phone directories, further diluting the divide argument. The legislation wouldn’t ban the Chinese Yellow Pages or Momento (Spanish Yellow Pages) because they are distributed through community centers, not residences.

The ordinance is expected to have its first public hearing around the end of the month. The YPA will continue to tout its opt out website to the board in hopes it might be enough to persuade the city to forgo the opt in system. The group also hasn’t ruled out a lawsuit.

But YPA’s Healy said he hopes the coming dialogue will be productive. “We share the same goal — we don’t want to print directories that are unwanted.”