August 29, 2014

Yellow pages, climate change, and the First Amendment right to litter

San Francisco could become the first city in the nation to prohibit the mass over-distribution of unwanted yellow-pages phone books. Board President David Chiu has authored legislation that would stop unwanted yellow-pages phone books from being left on neighborhood sidewalks. The law is not a ban—it simply requires that companies get some form of consent before leaving yellow-pages phone books unattended.

San Francisco receives an astonishing 1.6 million yellow-pages phone books every year, piled in doorways and left unwanted on sidewalks, representing seven million pounds of paper waste each year. Each phone book weighs 4 – 5 pounds. This is roughly two yellow pages for every man, woman, and child in the city—every year!

Why so many phone books? When a potential advertiser asks for an ad in the yellow pages, the price of the ads is justified by the inflated circulation numbers.

The industry would have us believe that yellow-pages phone books fill an insatiable free-speech appetite. In fact, every year separate competing distributors give us multiple copies of virtually the same phone book.

I received my third yellow pages of the year recently—on garbage night. Knowing that my neighbors had also received them, I took the opportunity to look inside their garbage and recycling bins that evening. Out of 15 bins I found and recovered nine untouched, unopened, newly delivered 2011 yellow-pages phone books.

San Francisco’s apartment buildings receive dozens upon dozens of unwanted yellow pages. The managers find them dumped in their lobbies and doorways two times a year. At a hearing on the issue at City Hall, San Francisco apartment-building managers testified that most of their residents don’t take the books, and the managers have to throw them away.

The legislation and pilot program being proposed by Board President David Chiu is aimed at stopping this waste and getting these phone books into the hands of real users, not imaginary ones.

As a city committed to being a national role model of zero waste and climate change, we have to cut our waste—and ask responsible businesses to do the same. Per capita, Americans produce more CO2 emissions than any other people on earth. According to the city, this legislation would be San Francisco’s biggest contribution to reducing our climate footprint in the last several years.

Stanford climate change expert Dr. Michael Wara, who examined both the legal and climate-change aspects of this legislation in light of the need to reduce our carbon footprint, writes, “We can afford to leave no stone unturned in this effort. . . . The Yellow Pages Distribution Pilot Program represents exactly the kind of careful, detailed policymaking that is necessary in every sector of our economy to address the enormous challenge of global climate change.”


Help the Bay Area lead the nation in environmental policy. To win we need you to urge key yes votes from:

Supervisor David Campos

Supervisor John Avalos
(415)554 -6976

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd

Urge them to support legislation to rein in the yellow-pages industry.

Dave Grenell

Dave Grenell is a former aide to Matt Gonzalez and Mayor Jerry Brown. He has worked on environmental policy in San Francisco, Oakland, and Richmond.

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