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Why and How to Recycle Phonebooks

And if you can't recycle your phonebooks, you can always reuse them

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Dear EarthTalk: My local recycler won’t take my old phonebooks. What should I do with them?
-- Jake, Westport, CT

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 waste paper 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 re-use. 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.

The Benefits of Recycling 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
  • 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.

If You Can’t Recycle, Reuse
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.

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.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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