The Phone Book

By Celeste Chaney

Dex is kinda cute, and sometimes useful, but do we really need him sitting around the house?
by Celeste Chaney
They can be very useful, making great booster chairs for toddlers, kindling for campfires or even leaf pressers, but when it comes to their actual purpose, phone books may be no match for the Internet.

As the spread of on-line directories continues, companies like Dex and Yellow Book continue to print their fat volumes and distribute them to thousands of Salt Lake homes and businesses each year. The result, dozens of phone books, stack up under desks and in corners almost untouched. Some people tuck the books away, just in case they ever need to press a leaf, others recycle them, but many more throw them out.

Dex reported that last year Salt Lake City area residents recycled 552 tons of Dex phone books, saving 9,400 trees, enough landfill space to handle a year's worth of trash from 248 households, enough electricity to power 226 homes for a year, and enough water to fill five Olympic sized swimming pools. The numbers seem impressive, but there are many variables to consider.

Peter Larmey, manager of external communications for R.H. Donnelley Corp., the company that owns Dex, said it is often difficult to draw a direct correlation between the number of books distributed and the number recycled, especially in a specific area like Salt Lake. "It depends upon many factors. For example, a person in Ogden could choose to recycle their book in Salt Lake City," Larmey said.

Dex, which publishes 1.3 million local directories, may be the most widely distributed directory in the industry, but there are dozens of others. Yellow Book, the second largest, had an estimated distribution this year of 427,500 books in the Salt Lake area.

To generate more advertising opportunities, companies have also expanded their markets by producing books geared toward specific populations. Dex released a Spanish-language edition three years ago, and a Salt Lake businessman, Sean Wright, launched a new directory, The Gay Pages, this year. Last May, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that in the Salt Lake area four companies publish nine directories with a total circulation of 2.6 million copies; in other words "enough to supply every man, woman and child living between Salt Lake City and Ogden with two books." These numbers are on the conservative side and do not account for directories like The Gay Pages, which put out 50,000 copies this year. 

Your average phone book weighs about seven pounds; this means roughly 13,825 tons of phone books are distributed each year in Salt Lake alone, or in simpler terms, a "whole lotta" wasted paper. Suddenly those 552 tons that Dex reported to have recycled last year do not seem like very much.

The issue of paper waste is one that has plagued the phone book industry for decades. On December 4, 1916 The New York Times printed an article on a "paper economy campaign" geared to cut paper waste. It stated that the largest paper user in the city was the New York Telephone Company.

The Internet's accessibility and convenience has created a new frontier for the phone book (as well as a greener alternative), and companies are investing in sites to ease the competition. In fact, in some states AT&T is seeking permission to discontinue general distribution of their white pages phone directory in hopes of turning more people to their site, although printed versions would be available upon request. Some companies in Canada are already there.

Sharon Gallup, media consultant for Yellow Book USA, said the popularity of online directories is increasing steadily. "This August we had eight million first-time visitors visit," she said. Gallup felt that the choice between the book and the Internet is generational. "I always turn to the book when I need a number, but younger people are going to the site." Even so, Gallup said, "the book is never going to go away."

If that is true the least we can do is recycle.

Celeste Chaney was a sophomore in high school when it dawned on her that she had to spend her lifetime writing (or trying to). A communication student at the University of Utah, she hopes to write and learn as much as she can. In 2006 she was recognized as a Freedom Forum Free Spirit Scholar for her efforts as a student journalist, and has been addicted to journalism and travel ever since. She is a CATALYST intern.

This article was originally published on October 31, 2007.