What could be more annoying than the dull thud of another unwanted phone book on your doorstep? Printed phone directories are as outdated as, well, rotary phones — and these days they amount to little more than waste for the majority of phone customers. That’s why cities like Seattle and San Francisco have recently passed legislation letting residents opt in or opt out of automatic Yellow Pages deliveries. Yet neither city’s pushback will affect the delivery of the White Pages.

The White Pages are an altogether different story. The reason the White Pages land on our front doors isn’t because phone companies want to annoy you; it’s because their delivery is required by state law. Until we make a very minor modification to existing rules, the White Pages will keep on coming to your front door, like or not.

Surprisingly, it turns out that the directory companies themselves would like to stop automatic delivery, if only the law allowed it. While the Yellow Pages generate advertising revenues, the White Pages represent only costs for the firms required to publish and deliver them, eroding the bottom line in an industry that’s already struggling. I’m not making this up: WhitePages.com is actively lobbying to end mandatory delivery laws.

The US industry claims that 5 million trees a year are cut down each year in order to print White Pages directories, and that nationwide in the United States only 22 percent of the books are recycled. (The phone companies’ concern about waste is somewhat ironic given their intransigence on Yellow Pages delivery reform.) I can’t personally vouch for those figures, but based on published numbers for other states, I calculate that reforming Northwest states’ white pages laws could save about 690 tons of paper in Oregon each year, and more than 1,200 tons of paper each year in Washington—nearly the weight of three fully-loaded 747 jumbo jets.

  • The white pages companies have even commissioned public opinion research on the subject. According to a Harris Interactive poll conducted in December of 2010, fully 87 percent of adults support “opt-in” programs for White Pages, in which phone customers would automatically no longer receive the directories unless they pro-actively requested one. Opt-in programs would mean immediate relief for millions of annoyed consumers, but still provide easy and free delivery of directories to the small number of people who still want them.

    There’s an important point about social equity here. For people on the “other” side of the digital divide, including some seniors and low-income families, who may have land lines but no cell phones and limited access to computers and the Internet, printed directories may still be important. Fortunately, this is a small number of people—especially in the Northwest states, which have the highest rates of Internet usage in the country—an “opt-in” program can easily ensure that folks who want them still have access to free print directories.

    For the vast majority of us, however, the White Pages are wasteful, costly, and unpopular—but required by law.

    Fortunately, the legal dam is beginning to crumble. USA Today reports that Verizon has already received approval to stop automatically delivering the white pages in 11 of the dozen states where it provides landline service. Rulings from California and DC are pending. AT&T is following suit, aiming to stop unwanted deliveries in an additional 14 states. (Newspaper coverage of the Verizon rulings is available for Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.) And the phenomenon isn’t just confined to the United States. In the Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne, for example, residential white pages directories are no longer required by law, but are available on an opt-in basis. In Canada, most major cities including Vancouver, BC already have opt-in white pages delivery and opt-out yellow pages delivery. (It’s not clear to me how phone directory deliveries are handled in non-urban Canadian areas. Any Canadian readers care to share?)

    Yet as of this writing, White Pages deliveries are still the law in the Northwest states. Fortunately, fixing the problem is relatively straightforward. Below, I explain in detail how it could be done in Washington.

    In Washington, mandatory White Pages deliveries are stipulated by Washington Administrative Code 480-120-251. Administrative code is a bit different from the laws we normally think of, which are typically introduced as bills, voted on by the legislature, and signed by the governor. Administrative code is law that results from what’s known as “rule making.” It’s regulation that does not appear in the original legislation, but that arises from a more general legislative directive for an agency to regulate a certain area.

    The authorizing legislation that covers White Pages deliveries, RCW 80.01.040, is exceptionally general and nonspecific. In essence, the law simply grants broad regulatory authority to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), the body that regulates railroads, electrical utilities, and telecommunications companies, among others. The UTC, in turn, developed—and now enforces—the administrative code requiring White Pages deliveries.

    Don’t hate the UTC though. Mandatory White Pages deliveries were the rule in almost every state, and the provisions were originally viewed as important elements of consumer protection and public benefit. Of course, that was before electronic communication and widespread internet access rendered printed directories obsolete for most phone users. Nowadays, the vast majority of phone books get pitched directly into the recycling bin or into the landfill.

    To end mandatory delivery in Washington there are basically two approaches: the easy way and the hard way. The hard way is to petition the UTC to open a new rulemaking on the subject, a lengthy process that normally involves drafting alternatives, lengthy public involvement, and time-consuming administrative tasks. If you’re into that sort of thing, the procedures for petitioning the UTC are set forth in RCW 34.05.330 and WAC 82-05.

    The easy way is for the legislature to intervene directly, simply passing a new law that amends the existing administrative code. In fact, a handful of Washington legislators are already wise to the problem. In 2011, they introduced HB 1751, which would have allowed recipients to opt-out of white pages deliveries by making individual requests. The bill didn’t go anywhere. That’s arguably a good thing because the “opt-out” mechanism is less effective at fixing the problem than an “opt-in” program.

    On this score, Oregon has been on the right track, where Senate Bill 525 would have created an “opt-in” program, automatically ended white pages deliveries except for those customers who say they want to receive the directories. The bill gained some traction, but appears to have stalled for this year. (The Product Stewardship Institute has a good compendium of related legislation in other US cities and states.)

    Now, let’s take a closer look at exactly how to fix the problem in law. Here’s how the first half of WAC 480-120-251 might look if the legislature fixed the problem:

    (1) A local exchange company (LEC) must ensure that a telephone directory is regularly published for each local exchange it serves, listing the name, address (unless omission is requested), and primary telephone number for each customer who can be called in that local exchange and for whom subscriber list information has been provided.

    (2) Any residential customer may request from the LEC a dual-name primary directory listing that contains, in addition to the customer’s surname, the customer’s given name or initials (or combination thereof) and either one other person with the same surname who resides at the same address or a second name, other than surname, by which the customer is also known, including the married name of a person whose spouse is deceased.

    (3) A LEC must provide each customer a copy of the directory for the customer’s local exchange area. A LEC must provide each customer with a postcard notice that automatic delivery will be terminated, along with instructions to opt in to ongoing free delivery of a copy of the directory for the customer’s local exchange area. If the directory provided for in subsection (1) of this section does not include the published listing of all exchanges within the customer’s local calling area, the LEC must, upon request, provide at no charge a copy of the directory or directories that contain the published listing for the entire local calling area.

    It’s just one sentence. It’s easy. And how else can the legislature do so much good with a one-sentence amendment? It cuts costs for companies, reduces waste and pollution, and alleviates a minor headache for millions of consumers. Now all we need is a bill introduced by some talented young legislator looking to chalk up a bipartisan win and snag a few headlines…

    Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, this one has your name all over it.


    Thanks to Jeanette Henderson and Rashad Morris, both of whom contributed information that helped make this post possible.

    Have ideas of your own for Sightline’s “Making Sustainability Legal” series? We’d love to hear them! Leave ideas in comments or email them to me at eric-at-sightline-dot-org.