A Yellow Pages Opt Out System for Seattle

On Monday, Oct 4th my colleagues and I on the Seattle City Council passed Council Bill 116954 establishing an opt-out system for yellow pages phone books in Seattle.

Before I get into the details of the ordinance, I want to talk about scale.  The challenges we face in our waste stream are massive – Seattle still sends a mile-long train of garbage to the landfill nearly every day.  Yellow pages directories are one of many products filling our garbage and recycling bins, and we know even if Seattle successfully eliminates 50% of the yellow pages delivered in the city that is merely a drop in the bucket.  I see two ways to scale our opt-out system up in a way that will transform today’s modest effort into something much more significant.  I hope those of you reading this blog will help.

The first is expanding the geographic scale.  Seattle will model a system that other jurisdictions can easily replicate by contracting with a third party vendor to build an opt-out list that other cities and states can easily join.  We believe we have devised a model that will withstand the legal challenges that the industry will almost certainly bring.  And I can attest to the political popularity of this effort – well over 95% of the comments we received were in support.

The second way is to scale to different sources of waste.  We believe this is the first time that producer responsibility principles have been used to address solid waste products that don’t have toxicity issues.  By law, all paper in Seattle must be recycled, but even then, this recycling of yellow pages costs the city and its ratepayers about $350,000 per year.  The yellow page industry profits by shifting these disposal costs to the public and our recovery fee puts that cost back on the Yellow Pages publishers.  This dynamic is not unique to the yellow page industry, and we need to identify the other areas where product life-cycle costs are being egregiously born by the public.

Now some specifics on what our ordinance does. For those of you who haven’t been following, the legislation does three things:

  1. Requires yellow pages distributors to obtain a city business license and file annual reports on the number and tonnage of yellow pages distributed in the city (distributor is defined as those who publish and arrange for the distribution of more than 4 tons of unsolicited yellow pages phone books annually).
  2. Creates a City of Seattle “opt-out” site.  Licensed publishers are required to download the names from this list 30 days prior to delivery and are not allowed to deliver to those on the list.
  3. Places a recovery fee of 14 cents/book on all yellow pages phone books distributed to cover the cost of administering the opt-out system and $148/ton to cover the cost of recycling.

The effort was fueled by local zero waste advocates who asked for help eliminating waste from unwanted yellow pages phone books.  This was followed by the City Council establishing phone books as one of our “zero waste” priority products for 2010-2011.

Seattle City Council Office with Stack of Phone BooksWhen Dex began its delivery cycle this summer, I received a set of directories despite having opted-out earlier in the year, and one of my aides received a Verizon Superpages book by simply moving to a new address in the same week.  In response, I posted an informal request for unwanted yellow pages books on my blog.  Soon my office was crammed full of books.  This was a photo opportunity and story that the press jumped at.  Over the summer the issue was featured on all four local tv stations, the news paper, and a couple radio news programs.  As the public response poured in, it was almost universal support.

As we drafted legislation, the Council looked at many options – both opt in and opt out – before settling on an opt-out system that really “works.”  For us, a functional opt-out system would both collect the preferences of as many people as possible, and would “work” on the back end, meaning if you opted out, you wouldn’t receive a yellow pages book.

Part of the challenge in either system is participation.  Many people simply won’t take the time to enroll in either an opt-in or opt-out system, making it difficult to capture actual preferences.   So, as the City of Seattle launches its opt-out list next spring, we’ll be working hard to communicate with and educate our residents and customers, making it easy to access the list and specify their preferences.  In addition to a user-friendly website, this means providing information in utility bills, via pre-paid postcards and educational pieces in language-specific newspapers and media.

We are hoping to create a system here in Seattle that other cities can model.  We’d love to hear about how other jurisdictions are managing yellow pages phone books and how we might coordinate a national effort to bring this to scale.Seattle City Council Office with Stacks of Phone Books

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9 thoughts on “A Yellow Pages Opt Out System for Seattle

  1. The problem that the industry fails to address is that opt-out doesn’t work unless there is enforcement. The YP companies, like other print industries, want distribution numbers for sales. The financial losses of unused product do not impact dollars. Ad buyers buy because of distribution numbers. Now that the YP industry is saturated with competition and a monopoly or duopoly no longer exists, yellow pages waste has progressively gotten worse. Rural areas do still use books. Yellowpage companies like Verizon stopped publishing books in rural markets, yet now cry that folks need this valuable asset? Seriously…. saturation distribution is a joke and is annoying the customers of the yellowpages industry.

  2. The Reuser says:

    Mike S.,

    I agree with you about enforcement, but I believe this program addresses that-though it’s not mentioned in the article.

    Mike O.,
    Thank you for this article and for the program. I’m excited to see how this works for Seattle and I like that you have mentioned scaling the whole program up and out to other non-toxic products. Product stewardship incentivizes efficiencies, recyclability, reusability, and really considering the end of life of a product when first creating that product.

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