Phonebook Littering

The town of Jackson is looking at ways to crack down on unwanted phone book deliveries, including the option of negotiating with the phone directory companies.

It was a warm summer day when a hefty paper projectile landed with a thud in front of Jackson Town Manager Bob McLaurin’s house.

He thought it was someone hurling trash. But it wasn’t. It was the Yellow Pages.

“A guy drives by and flings what I thought was garbage into my yard,” McLaurin said Monday at a Jackson Town Council workshop. “It was a phone book. I didn’t like it very much, quite honestly.”

So he threw it back at the phone book distributor.

Mike Varilone sees the same telephone directories scattered around yards when he walks his dog through east Jackson.

“There are many that just get left out because people don’t live there,” Varilone said during public comment at the workshop. “They get soaked with rain. They get left out for several months at a time.

“It’s littering, basically,” he said. “Somebody’s throwing something in my yard that I don’t want.”

Most of the Jackson Town Council agrees with McLaurin and Varilone. The unwanted delivery of phone books is a nuisance in the 21st century, they say. And the council wants to do something about it.

One idea for cracking down on the practice includes citing offenders with littering, a misdemeanor.

State statute says that a person is guilty of littering if he or she “places, throws, scatters or deposits garbage, debris, refuse or waste material, objects or substances ... upon the property of another.”

Council members say that means unwanted phone book deliveries are against the law.

“Phone books are an object and somebody is taking an object and throwing it onto people’s properties, and then it becomes the burden of the property owner to have to deal with it,” Councilman Jim Stanford said at the meeting. “It’s a tremendous waste.”

Stanford first brought up the question at a meeting last spring, citing the littering issue but also the waste of paper.

He proposed that phone books be stacked at the post office for those who want one.

Five or six companies currently deliver phone books to houses around the valley, Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith said.

For home deliveries the corporations often employ area residents such as taxi drivers to do the drop-offs, he said. Some companies also send their directories to the post office, with enough phone books and postage for every mailbox, Jackson Postmaster Jennifer Grutzmacher said.

There are more than 10,000 rented post office boxes at the two Jackson post offices.

“We are required to deliver to every box,” Grutzmacher said. “When the customers don’t want them, we take them to the recycle center.”

Residents get a card in their box notifying them of a delivery.

Standing in line for a package only to find out it’s the Yellow Pages can be frustrating, Stanford said.

“It’s not only a phone book, it’s sometimes an Idaho Falls phone book,” he said. “That feeling alone is maddening.”

An estimated 5 million trees are chopped down each year to print phone books, according to the site BanThePhoneBook.org. That is reason enough for many people across the country to demand an end to distribution of the old-school directories.

But phone book companies have fought back, saying that they provide a product that is needed by citizens who don’t have access to smartphones or computers.

Jackson Town Council members said they want phone book companies to take an “opt-in” approach, meaning that consumers would be given the choice of whether they want to receive the white pages, which is the part of the phone book that lists residential numbers.

Currently those who want to bar phone book deliveries can do so by notifying the phone book company or using the website YellowPagesOptOut.com. But that shouldn’t have to be the case, Stanford said.

“I don’t think the burden should be on residents to opt out,” he said.

“These are big companies based in California. I think we could inform [them] that we’re going to start enforcing our littering statute.”

The majority of the council supported the idea.

“It’s an intrusive littering issue,” Mayor Mark Barron said Tuesday. “You’re paying taxpayer money to get rid of all this crap that people didn’t ask for.”

But regulating the practice through a littering ordinance may be difficult, as town attorneys and Councilman Bob Lenz noted at the meeting.

“My approach is let it go the way it is,” Lenz said. “It looks to me like you have constitutional problems.”

Indeed, Town Attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis wrote in a staff report that an attempted ban and tax on the practice by the city of Seattle resulted in a 9th Circuit Court ruling that found telephone books to be “non-commercial speech.” As such they are protected by the First Amendment.

“I’m certainly not going to ask the police department to go out and spend their time citing people for littering because there’s a phone book,” Lenz said.

Additionally, the town cannot cite a corporation for a criminal misdemeanor offense, Cohen-Davis and police chief Smith said.

But Stanford said he is not deterred and that some kind of ordinance could be drafted.

“We are intending to use the littering angle, but we’re also going to put our heads together,” Stanford said Tuesday.

“Until enough communities around the country start speaking up, it’s never going to change.”

At the workshop, he said he would be OK if action by the council to end the practice became a Supreme Court case.

The council ultimately voted 4-1 to approve a motion directing staff to prepare an ordinance prohibiting mass distribution of phone books on private property. They also asked that letters be sent to phone book companies to tell them about the council’s action and to encourage them to take an opt-in approach.

Lenz was the only council member to vote against drafting a law to try to stop the practice.

Attempts to reach phone book companies who deliver to Jackson, including Ziplocal and Our Town Media, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Cody Cottier covers town and state government. He grew up with a view of the Olympic Mountains, and after graduating Washington State University he traded it for a view of the Tetons. Odds are the mountains are where you’ll find him when not on deadline.

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