White Pages: Theater of the Absurd

It shouldn't be illegal NOT to get the white pages.
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal

waytocrowded, flickr

When was the last time you used the white pages? Be honest now. I, for one, can’t remember the last time I used the phone book for anything but propping open a door. And apparently I’m not alone: see these two articles and this comment string for more examples of white-pages fatigue than you can shake a stick at.

Add to the chorus the totally real, 100-percent not-made-up person in this video:

The phone lady has it right: most states still mandate universal white pages delivery.  But the good news is that the tide is turning. The city of Seattle recently allowed residents to opt out of both white pages and yellow pages delivery. And sixteen enlightened states already allow phone companies to spare their customers the annual ritual of discarding an unneeded phone book: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and most recently, California. And as that mix of states suggests, the appeal of ending mandatory white pages delivery crosses partisan lines; phone book laws make even the conservative Heartland Institute sound like a bunch of tree-huggers.

Looking beyond the anecdotes (and the totally real, not at all made up hidden-camera video above), there are plenty of hard numbers showing that mandatory phone book laws are a massive waste of both paper and money:

  • recent Harris Interactive survey found that most Americans don’t even use the white pages, and that 87 percent of respondents said that they’d support an “opt-in” program if they knew it would save money and protect the environment. (Of course, the survey was paid for by an internet white pages provider — but their findings are consistent with other evidence.)
  • The EPA reports that only 37 percent of phone directories (by weight) are recycled. The rest are simply landfilled.
  • A Gallup survey, as reported here, found that the share of households relying on stand-alone residential white pages fell from 25 percent to 11 percent, just between 2005 and 2008.
  • AT&T has reported that only 3 percent of residents in Austin and Atlanta asked for the white pages after the company initiated by-request-only delivery.

So I’m kind of in the same situation as that absolutely, 100% for real guy in the video: I wish someone would just go ahead and change the law already.

Update by EdP: For more detail on the history of the law—and how we can change it—see my earlier post on the subject: Why You Can’t Stop the White Pages.

Hat tip to Jeanette Henderson for the video idea.

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  1. andyg says:

    Phone companies would love to dump white pages cuz they don’t get advertising $. So, if 11% use the white pages, but only 3% “opt in”, are the other 8% screwed? How many of them are non-gizmo non-yuppies that have no alternative? I use the white pages regularly. It’s faster and less BS to wade through to find an actual listing than when using the web. I’m all for recycling, but not sure I buy the argument–yellow pages are much thicker and there’s more than just one of them that get dropped off unsolicited..

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      I think it’s a fair question. I know that back in the 1990s I would take notes in the phone book — and to retain the notes, I’d keep the old phone book when it arrived & throw away the new one. So just because 11% of people use a phone book doesn’t mean that all 11% need a brand new white pages each year.

      That said, I share your concerns that some people won’t know how to opt in. The phone companies could make the process as clear and simple as possible, but there could always be a few who miss the notice in the phone bill, or any advertising. The problem of guaranteeing access to white pages is legitimate — but my guess is that it’s a problem that the phone companies wouldn’t mind having, in exchange for relief from the burden of printing and delivering a largely useless 3 pound brick of paper to every customer, every year.

    • Eric de Place says:

      It seems to me the problem would be fairly simple to solve. Every phone billing statement should have a big bold red-inked note that says “Dial O for a free phone directory.”

      • andyg says:

        That would work. It might be the only thing ON the phone bill that was clear and transparent.

  2. Stacey W-H says:

    I wonder if the usefulness of the white pages goes down as the size of a community goes up? In my town, with a population of about 40,000, the white pages are still pretty useful. It’s a manageable size and most people I know can be found in it. Frankly, I use it a lot. But I can imagine that in a city the size of Seattle the phone book would just get too big and unwieldy to be useful. You must have pages and pages of Smiths! Regardless, I certainly don’t need a new one every year and I could probably learn to go to the computer rather than the phonebook to find people.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Sure — or you could just opt in, and get a phone book!

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    I haven’t had a landline phone in my home since 1999. Yet every year that huge brick of paper lands on my doorstep. I wonder how relevant the thing is anymore – it’s certainly not the complete list of names and numbers it used to be.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      That’s part of the problem: more and more people with cell phones & unlisted numbers means that the White Pages are gradually becoming less useful. Over the 5 years, I’ve probably had 2 pounds of phone book delivered for every phone number I’ve looked up.

  4. Morgan says:

    Have you looked into why phone companies haven’t already changed or tried to change this law?

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Actually, Verizon’s been pretty successful so far at challenging the law. They’ve been active in the states that have already allowed for opt-in delivery.

      I’m not sure why other phone companies haven’t been more active. Maybe the phone companies have bigger fish to fry. I’ve wondered about the role of Dex in particular: they print both white pages and yellow pages in our part of the world. I’ve heard of people who’ve cancelled their land lines still getting White Pages books — so I wouldn’t be surprised if Dex simply delivers White Pages to all residences, along with the Yellow Pages they distribute as a profit center. They may find it simpler to just deliver to everyone than to develop a system for opt-outs. But that’s just speculation!!!

  5. Eric Scigliano says:

    Clark–A couple questions re. the stats you cite, beyond andyg’s trenchant remarks on the 8 percent who seem to fall between the opt-in cracks.
    * “The EPA reports that only 37 percent of phone directories (by weight) are recycled.” A national figure? Seattle’s overall recycling is significantly higher, and its phonebook recycling rate may be higher still, since the books are easier to recycle than many other materials.
    * “The share of households relying on stand-alone residential white pages fell from 25 percent to 11 percent, just between 2005 and 2008.” Century Link now delivers the Seattle White and Yellow Pages bound together, in addition to the standalone–evidently a step toward eliminating the standalone. How many other markets receive similar combined volumes, and how many in that 14 percent have switched over to them rather than dropping out of paper?
    * “More and more people with cell phones & unlisted numbers means that the White Pages are gradually becoming less useful.” Indeed–and so are online directories, which also lack cell and unlisted numbers. A comprehensive cellphone directory would be useful, and intrusive. I suspect we’d all like to see everyone’s numbers included except our own.
    As you know, I’ve written on the ways that phonebooks can sometimes be faster, more effective, and maybe even more resource-efficient than online searches (http://crosscut.com/2012/01/16/environment/21779/Save-the-phonebook!-/). That’s not to say they’re not fading from use. Many good ideas have also faded, such as the clotheslines that Sightline & I both champion.
    I’d still favor giving the opt-out option more time to work. Sightline folks do offer some good opt-in ideas. But phone-bill notices won’t help much with auto-pay and online billing, and annual check-off postcards will get lost with the other, ahem, junk mail.
    In my experience, Century Link is already enforcing a de facto opt-in–not delivering unless you call each year. Getting the phone companies to provide convenient opt-ins, when they want to drop the White Pages entirely, will be like getting tobacco companies to stop marketing to young people.

    • Eric de Place says:


      Let me take a crack at answering some of your questions.

      1.) The recycling figure is, I believe, a national figure. The recycling rate in Seattle is probably higher, but remember that the law applies to the whole state of Washington, which generally recycles much less than Seattle. What’s more, recyling is no panacea; it’s very wasteful to produce unwanted items only to pitch them immediately into the recylcing bin. And to do it year after year.

      2.) I don’t follow your second point about combined volumes. Can you re-state?

      3.) Everyone acknowledges that White Pages are becoming less useful because they are increasingly less complete. That’s all that really matters when we consider whether the gov’t should continue forcing them annually on residents. The fact that other directory listings are also incomplete doesn’t seem relevant to me.

      4.) There are so many ways that a phone company can reach it’s customers—or be required to reach them—that I can’t understand why the law’s default setting should be a new phone book for every person every year. It would be easy to write the law such a way that phone companies had to mail (or even hand deliver) postcards or notices; had to provide a clear written notice on printed and electronic bill statements; and had to deliver them to community centers, libraries, post offices and the like. Best yet, simply dialing “0” would allow any customer to request a free phone book on demand.

      Marketing tobacco to kids seems like a strained analogy at best. By contrast to the fuzzy qualitative judgment about when something is being “marketed,” it’s straightforward for Washington’s UTC to write clear prescriptive rules that benefit the public interest. They do it for transportation systems, electrical utilities, and phone companies all the time. All we’re asking is that the UTC (or the legislature) modify the rules to eliminate nuisance deliveries, reduce waste, and save money. Opt-in is the most effective way to do that.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Eric S –

      I think we agree on 98% of this issue, actually. And as a confessional: I was actually in the opt-out camp at first. But looking into the issue & talking to other people convinced me that I was mistaken: are just SO MANY ways for phone companies to get the message out:

      * Put a big fat notice ON THE COVER of the next White Pages. “Starting next year, we’re delivering the White Pages by request only. But you can still get a free copy if you want it. Just dial 0 and talk to the operator if you want a free copy of the new White Pages when it’s ready. Or point your internet browser to http://www.whitepagesoptout.com

      * Inserts in bills – “To get a copy of the new White Pages when it’s ready, just return this slip with your phone bill”

      * Email – for anyone with electronic billing, the phone company could just send you an email. “Click here if you want a phone book!”

      * Robo calls. They’re the phone company for goodness sake: they definitely have your number. “Press 1 if you’d like get a phone book; or dial 0 at any time to request one.”

      * The news! I think that most news outlets would run a couple of stories on it. I’ve found articles on other states where white pages delivery has stopped.

      * There’s always advertising — which would probably be cheaper for the phone companies in the long run than printing & distributing the books.

      * Libraries: they could keep a stack of free phone books, they way they have free tax forms.

      Ultimately, I realized that I was twisting myself in knots trying to convince myself that there were people who wouldn’t know how to opt in. If a person can read the numbers inside the phone book, will they REALLY miss a clearly printed notice on the front cover?? And besides, we have the experience of many other states to draw from — if there were mistakes made, we can try to avoid them. (I suppose that’s one advantage of being way behind the curve on this one.)

      I do agree, however, that we’d have to hold the phone companies’ feet to the fire to run a fair and transparent opt-in system. That might be easier said than done — but it’s a risk I think make sense, given the massive waste of money, energy, and paper in the current system.

  6. portrait Jeanette says:

    Great video! It’s exactly how lots of people feel — give us the choice and don’t force phone books on us. There’s a whole range of preferences: some people don’t want any phone books at all, some want white pages but not yellow pages, some want new phone books less frequently than every year. Whatever the reason people may have for wanting or not wanting phone books, the point is it’s crazy to have a state law mandating delivery of white pages to every single household. Changing the law would give people choice!

  7. Albert Kaufman says:

    Say something really scary like “no more yellow pages”. That’s what the phone companies would really not like you to do. Here’s my version on that issue.


    I wish Sightline would actually say the things that are really hard to say. Take real stands. This is low-hanging fruit.

  8. Tab says:

    I have opted out countless times from all of the different phone book companies here in Seattle (There are 3 or 4 I think?), and I still get the phone books every year without fail.

    They should require the circulars like “Red Plum” to also use opt-in. Who uses coupons anymore?! At least when I opted out of that one, they actually stopped sending it.

  9. Alan Durning says:

    Tab, Have you gone to the URL below to opt out? If they keep sending them, I think there are complaint and penalty procedures.


    If you keep getting them, you should write down when you receive them and develop a file (and pile). Then both Catalog Choice and city council will be very interested.

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