Dear EarthTalk: My local recycler won’t
take my old phonebooks. What should I do with them?
Many recyclers won’t accept telephone books because
the fibers used to make the books’ lightweight pages
are too short to be reformulated into new paper. In fact, mixing
old phonebooks in with other wastepaper can even contaminate
the batch, hindering the recyclability of the other paper fibers.
Nonetheless, phonebook papers are 100 percent recyclable and
are used primarily to—you guessed it—make new phonebooks!
In fact, most phonebooks distributed today are made from re-fabricated
old phonebook pages mixed with some scrap wood to strengthen
the fibers for reuse. Old phonebooks are also sometimes recycled
into insulation materials, ceiling tiles, and roofing surfaces,
as well as paper towels, grocery bags, cereal boxes, and office
papers. In fact, in a gesture both symbolic and practical,
Pacific Bell/SBC now includes payment envelopes in its bills
created from old Smart Yellow Pages phonebooks.
According to Los Gatos, California’s Green Valley Recycling,
if all Americans recycled their phonebooks for a year, we would
save 650,000 tons of paper and free up two million cubic yards
of landfill space. Modesto, California’s Parks, Recreation & Neighborhoods
Department, which lets city residents include phonebooks with
their regular curbside pickup, says that for each 500 books
recycled, we save 7,000 gallons of water, 3.3 cubic yards of
landfill space, 17 to 31 trees, and 4,100 kilowatts of electricity,
enough to power an average home for six months.
Consumers trying to do the right thing should find out when
and how their town or phone company will accept phonebooks
for recycling. Some will only take phonebooks back at certain
times of year, often when new books are being distributed.
Some schools, echoing the “newspaper drives” of
bygone days, run contests in which students bring old phonebooks
to school where they are then collected and sent off to recyclers.
But those whose towns won’t accept phonebooks at all
and who can’t find anywhere else to drop them need not
fret. Old phonebooks have many practical uses. Their pages
make excellent fire starters in a wood-burning fireplace or
outdoor fire pit. Balled up or shredded phonebook pages also
make nice packaging filler in place of problematic polystyrene “peanuts.”
Phonebook pages can also be shredded and used as mulch to keep
weeds down in your garden. The paper is biodegradable and will
eventually return back to the soil. Those with an artistic
bent can use old phonebooks to make flipbook style animated
drawings, as described by animator Robert Truscio on his “Drawings
That Move” instructional Web site.
There are also a number of telephone book collectors; some
who make money selling their stock to those with a historical
interest or who are researching family genealogies. Lifelong
collector Gwillim Law sells old phonebooks from all 50 U.S.
states as well as from most Canadian and Australian provinces.
On O‘ahu, old phonebooks can be dropped off in any community