A jaundiced proposal

Environmentalism in mind, Chiu proposes a ban on unsolicited Yellow Pages

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An ordinance to ban unsolicited print Yellow Pages across San Francisco, proposed Feb. 1 by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, seeks to reduce waste and save money.

"Phone books are a 20th-century tool that doesn't meet the business and environmental needs of the 21st century," Chiu said as he introduced the measure in board chambers.

The ordinance would establish a three-year pilot program starting Oct. 1 in which the city would reduce the mass distribution of phone books, making them available only at distribution centers or to residents or businesses that request them.

A rally in support of the ban before the meeting included Rainforest Action Network's founder Randall Hayes and California Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Mateo), who proposed legislation that failed to gain steam last year for making it easier for Californians to opt out of receiving phone books.

But the Yellow Pages Association refuses to be thrown out with the rest of yesterday's trash. YPA Vice President of Public Policy and Sustainability Amy Healy said her group opposes the proposal but that she was encouraged that Chiu and his staff say they are open to working with the association.

 

BY THE NUMBERS

Chiu introduced the ordinance, which is cosponsored by Sup. Scott Wiener, because of the potential effect it could have on reducing city waste, both in the city's garbage bins and its treasury.

According to Chiu's office, San Francisco receives about 1.5 million phone books a year. At an average weight of 4.33 pounds per book, the current distribution system creates about 7 million pounds of waste. If the production were cut in half for the city, it would save nearly 6,180 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year from polluting the air.

But it isn't just the environmental cost that is wearing on the city.

Phone books are tough to recycle. With plastic inserts, bulky design, and low-grade paper, the books have to be presorted and recycled manually. It costs Recology, the company contracted with the city for waste disposal, $300 per ton to dispose of the city's unused phone books, which in turn costs taxpayers about $1 million a year for their disposal.

 

OPT IN VS. OPT OUT

The YPA has been sensitive to the environmental concerns, recently launching a website that allows a person to opt out of receiving a phone book.

But it is also suing the Seattle City Council over its Feb. 1 approval of a plan to charge Yellow Pages a 14-cent publisher's fee per book and create an opt out system for the city, arguing the Seattle ordinance violates the First Amendment's free speech protections.

According to a statement by YPA President Neg Norton, the association believes that "if don't want a phone book, you shouldn't have to get one."

But YPA opposes the ban on unsolicited books, citing the jobs it would cost, the business community's desire to "generate leads and revenue from ready-to-buy consumers," and claiming the First Amendment "prohibits government from licensing or exercising advance approval of the press and from directing publishers what to publish and to whom they may communicate."

Wiener has a different take on the matter, a stand he said he has already received lots of criticism for, including from some constituents who compared it to the board vote to ban Happy Meals last year. But he said this issue is very different.

"An enormous number of books dumped all over the city is a bad thing, and we should do something to address the issue," he told the Guardian, noting that the ability to opt out isn't good enough. "It's not like the do-not-call list where it is directly annoying and people are more likely to take action ... Stacks sit in apartment lobbies, and people don't decide to opt-out."

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