Monday, December 18, 2006

PHONE BOOK TIME AGAIN

As I walked out of our building the other day, I passed a stack of new phone books in the vestibule. The next day, a couple of them were gone. Since then, nobody has removed any of them. I haven't taken any, partly because, having busted a couple of ribs, I'm in no shape for heavy lifting right now. I don't know what everybody else's excuse is. I'm not sure I would bother with them even if I were physically up to it, so why should my neighbors?

Why should anybody? What use are they? I read someplace a while back that, at least in the Chicago area, roughly one-third of the information in our phone books is either inaccurate or outdated. The Bureau of the Census says that every year, 20% of us move. So we're starting out with 20% of the information being inaccurate for at least part of the year, assuming that they got it right in the first place. Which they don't, necessarily. Their spelling is questionable, especially with non-Anglo-Saxon names or odd business titles. (My favorite veggie restaurant, the late lamented Mama Peaches, was listed by Directory Assistance as "Mama's Peaches.") Sometimes the numbers are transposed, much to the dismay of, for instance, perfectly respectable customers who discover their numbers are listed under "phone sex" or "pizza."

Most of us these days can check out phone numbers online at home or work. Those unfortunates who need to call from someplace else won't be able to find a phone book anyplace else anyway. Certainly not at pay phones (a rapidly-disappearing convenience.)

As pay phones vanish, phone books grow and multiply. These days, they aren't necessarily produced by the same people who provide your phone service. After all, the wisdom of deregulation has brought us multiple phone service providers. Some of them produce books, some don't. And some independent companies, who have nothing to do with providing phone service at all, do produce books. In the Chicago area, there are at least two separate and more-or-less identical sets of phone books stacked up in our hall every year.

And that's just counting information for phones within the Chicago city limits. There are something like 248 municipalities in the Chicago area. They get grouped into three supplementary sets of phone books, for the north, south, and west suburbs. (We are fortunate in that Lake Michigan occupies the space that would otherwise contain the east suburbs.) We city-dwellers have to special-order the suburban books, and pay for them. And provide space for them. People who do a lot of business in the suburbs probably have no choice, especially since Directory Assistance is utterly useless for finding suburban phone numbers unless you happen to know which suburb contains the place you're looking for. But the rest of us generally choose to do without and take our chances.
The alternative, after all, is three Chicago phone books (white pages, consumer yellow pages, and business-to-business yellow pages), plus white and yellow pages for three sets of suburbs. That's 9 very large books, total, weighing approximately 5 pounds each. A pain to store, a pain to lift, and increasingly difficult to use, given that the print keeps getting smaller (no, that's not an illusion caused by aging--publishers are trying to save paper and delivery costs, and one of the ways they do it is by either shrinking the print size, or cramming the letters closer together, or both.)

The only commercially produced phone books that are really any use are the small neighborhood and local suburban books; they're no more accurate than their big brothers, but they are a lot easier to store and to use.

Making phone books, of course, requires cutting down trees. Roughly 17 of them per ton of paper. At 45 pounds per household, that's roughly 75,000 tons a year, killing roughly 1,275,000 trees. Plus all kinds of minerals (mostly toxic) for the ink. Plus the water it takes to sustain the forests.

Once you're finished with the phone book, you have to figure out what to do with it. It's yet another serious burden on the ecosystem. For some reason, phone books don't biodegrade. They last forever. They make up roughly 20% of the contents, by volume, of the average landfill. They are made from a low grade of paper that must be "downcycled" into lower grade recycled products. And they're contaminated with toxic minerals, plastics, and magnets that mess up the recycling process.

So, like an increasing proportion of people all over the world, including apparently most of my neighbors, I have decided not to bother picking up this year's new phone books. I will throw out my old ones wherever the city recycling authorities mandate, and use the space for something more interesting.

3 Comments:

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2:19 AM  
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2:31 AM  

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