Call it a sound of summer, the noise a bundled pile of phone books makes as it lands on your doorstep. AT&T is delivering them throughout San Diego through next week.

Why do phone book companies get to distribute their products that way? And is any lawmaker willing to speed up what Slate calls the “most absurdly drawn-out death throes of any advertising medium ever known”?

Here are some frequently asked questions about phone books along with actual answers.

How come phone books on my porch aren’t litter?

Because the law says they aren’t.

“We don’t have any restrictions that we’re aware of in the San Diego area,” says AT&T Advertising Solutions spokesman Bruce Logan.

In fact, California state law requires that local phone companies distribute the white pages to their customers. The AT&T yellow pages come along for the ride.

The phone books go to non-customers too. “We deliver to homes and businesses within the area regardless of who the provider is,” Logan said. That means you get one even if your only phone isn’t connected to the wall, or if you have no phone at all.

And, of course, a variety of non-phone companies distribute their own varieties of yellow pages.

How do I get these companies to stop delivering phone books?

It’s not easy. The Yellow Pages Association has a webpage devoted to opting-out from phone book distribution, but you still need to contact each company individually.

Can you just throw used phone books into those blue recycling bins?

Yes, or you can take them to a city recycling center.

Doesn’t it cost the city to recycle all these phone books?

No one seems to know exactly how much, since San Diego city officials couldn’t break out the specific cost of recycling phone books.

However, the city does lose money on its curbside recycling program. Revenue from the commodities that are recycled (all that junk is worth something) doesn’t cover the cost of collecting them. Taxpayers cover the difference: $4.5 million a year.

How much do all those distributed phone books weigh?

This is a tough one to figure out since a variety of companies distribute phone books of various types and sizes. (AT&T alone says it distributes 5.3 million phone books a year in San Diego County.)

But I’ll give you a rough estimate.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the United States creates 804,000 tons worth of phone books each year. The city of San Diego makes up approximately 0.4 percent — a bit less than half of one percent — of the country’s 307 million people.

Multiply 804,000 tons by .004 and you get 3,216 tons of phone books distributed in the city each year.

That would account for about four percent of the 72,166 tons of recyclables that the city expects to collect through curbside recycling this year. (Of course, not everyone recycles their phone books.)

Does anybody even use the phone book anymore?

Yes. Particularly, its advocates say, in rural areas lacking internet service. And the phone book itself is a huge business. The yellow pages industry, which is still dominated by its print products, made an estimated $15.38 billion — yes, billion — in 2009, a decline of 7.5 percent from the previous year.

Is anyone trying to stop phone book distribution?

Yes. A group called Ban the Phone Book has gotten media attention (it was organized by an online directory that could benefit if people have fewer phonebooks).

Legislators in Sacramento this year pushed a bill that would forbid delivery of phone books to customers who opt out of receiving them. It would have also required phone books to include opt-out information on their covers.

The phone book industry opposed the bill, arguing that it’s made significant progress in allowing residents to opt-out of phone book delivery. (That may be so, but there is still no one-stop website or phone number to halt all phone book delivery.)

The bill died in the state Senate in June by a vote of 18-12. State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, was the only local representative to support it.

Kehoe said in a statement that she uses phone books, but supported the bill because most households get several. “They aren’t going to keep all of them and many are directly recycled or worse, thrown away,” she said. “This seemed like a waste to me.”

State Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-Chula Vista, voted no, saying the bill didn’t seem well thought out.


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