Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Unwanted phone books dial up recycling challenges

By THEA NEAL AND AGNIESZKA SPEISZNY
Capital News Service

LANSING – While many individuals are condensing their lives into tiny digital devices, businesses aren’t slowing down production of paper phone books.

“We have all these phone books which serve more as coasters or bookends than they do as references,” said Erik Mitchell, a Michigan State University psychology student.

Mitchell said the David Bowie Memorial Cooperative House in East Lansing receives phone books, sometimes twice a year. “We recycle them sometimes, but it’s easier to just leave them on our stoop and ignore them.”

Instead of using them, however, residents look up phone numbers on the Internet, he said.

Phone books decay like other paper in landfills, but their production requires a lot of resources.

To publish 500 million phone books, 19 million trees are harvested and 7.2 million barrels of oil are used, according to YellowPagesGoesGreen.org, an organization that wants to change the phone book delivery model. Its website estimates that about 540 million directories are printed annually in the United States.

But what some critics call a dust collector remains a prime place to advertise. AT&T Inc. says. It’s one of the nation’s largest phone book producers, publishing about 150 million in 22 states.

Almost nine million are distributed in Michigan, according to AT&T advertising director Bob Mueller, who said they “drive business to small and medium businesses,” such as doctors, attorneys, restaurants, plumbers and auto mechanics.

In terms of revenue, businesses take in $4 for every $1 invested in a phone book ad, according to Mueller.

Bryan Buckhave, president of Michigan Plumbing in Lansing, said his company has advertised in AT&T phone books since 1973.

But Buckhave said. “We know a lot of people are slowly going to back out of using them.”

Michigan Plumbing also advertises on television and the Internet. Buckhave said he’d be more likely to use the Internet if older people were comfortable with it. That may be a matter of time, and eventually the company will advertise solely online, he said.

It’s impossible to know how many phone books are recycled in Michigan because recycling centers aren’t required to collect data on them, said Matt Fletcher, recycling manager of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

Minnesota is the only Great Lakes state that bans telephone directories from disposal in solid waste sites, and publishers there have been required to collect and deliver unused directories to recyclers since 1992.

To reduce waste in landfills, AT&T launched Project ReDirectory in 1988, a program to encourage recycling. Other companies have similar efforts, but individuals may recycle phone books at designated drop-off sites throughout the year.

Friedland Industries Inc. in Lansing processes about 2,500 tons of recycled paper, said John Lancour, the company’s vice president, who estimates that phone directories account for about 80 tons of that amount.

For example, the East Lansing center recycled an average of 16 tons of directories each year since 2004, according to Dave Smith, environmental specialist at the city’s Department of Public and Environmental Services. Granger Wood Road Recycling Drop-Off Center in Lansing received nine tons of phone books in 2008 and 11 tons in 2009.

Both send phone books to Friedland

“We’re the phone book and book gurus in the Tri-County area,” Lancour said.

The phone books are shredded and compressed into large blocks.

Lancour doesn’t just recycle the directories — he puts them to use. His delivery drivers use local maps printed in phone books for better local directions than those he’s found on the Internet.

And his company still advertises in phone books because Internet advertising causes problems for consumers, he said.

“You can click on something and it will link away from what you’re looking for,” he said. “You can be looking for a local company and you’ll only find something national.”

Lancour said that the “digital divide” — the age difference between phone book users and Internet users — puts senior citizens at a disadvantage if phone book production is reduced.

“Older people aren’t always as good with the Internet, and some people don’t even have computers,” he said. “Elder people would struggle to find phone numbers on a daily basis.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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