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Environmental Disconnect

Do we still need so many phone books delivered to our doorsteps?

by Erin Pihlaja on February 27, 2013

Albany County Legislator Chris Higgins is fed up with phone books, and he’s asking Albany County legislators to do something about it. Today (Thursday), legislators will get their first look at a bill aimed on reducing waste produced by telephone directories.

Higgins, a self-described “big environmentalist,” said that he has noticed in the Center Square and Hudson Park neighborhoods the “incessant presence” of telephone directories that have been delivered with “no rhyme or reason of when or how many” at several addresses, including vacant or abandoned buildings. “There is a three-unit rental property on my street,” he said, “where these books were delivered right before a big snowstorm. The tenants didn’t bring them in and they sat there for a week or two falling over.” Eventually, Higgins picked up the directories and recycled them.

The bill states that telephone directories create a “significant portion of the waste stream, estimated at 650,000 tons yearly in the U.S.,” and that a “2006 EPA study, Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases, found that every ton of reduction of phone book generation eliminates GHG emissions of 1.72 metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE).”

Albany Common Council member Anton Konev said that he has fielded multiple complaints from Albany residents about unwanted telephone directories. One e-mail correspondence from a State Street resident said, “The vacant building at 27 Western Avenue . . . had about 15 books dumped at both ends that my daughter and I took the time to pick up and put in our recycling bin. My own home had at least two at the front door and two at the back door for a single-family home!” Konev added that he has witnessed similar pile-ups at the apartment complex where he resides.

Currently, as Albany Common Councilman Richard Conti pointed out, Albany’s Handbill Ordinance (Chapter 217) requires that directories provide an opt-out notice for residents who no longer want to receive them. Still, Conti said, “for residential buildings in my area, the distributor will make visual assumptions on how many units there may be in a building and often leaves more than are needed.” He added that when the books are left out for days they “can also raise public-safety issues” because the unclaimed books may “be an indication that the house is vacant or the residents are away, potentially making the home a burglary target.”

Like the Handbill Ordinance, Higgins’ bill would also require that residents be clearly provided a way to opt out of delivery and would impose fines for noncompliance. In addition, the legislation would require that the books be printed on “paper that is recyclable and contains not less than 30 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, use inks that contain no heavy metals or other toxic material and be bound with materials that pose no unreasonable barriers to recycling such directories.”

The law specifically targets business directories, which make more money as their distribution increases, and states that: “The provisions of this subdivision shall not apply to the distribution of residential white page directories by a telephone corporation providing local exchange service in this state.”

“This is a major issue,” said Higgins, who modeled the legislation on a bill that is pending in the New York State Senate Consumer Affairs Committee. “Why can’t we do this in Albany County?” He hopes that the bill will be on the Albany County Legislature’s March agenda.