I was standing at the bus stop the other day and noticed in the parking lot adjacent to the  stop a 50 foot transport trailer. It was set at a rakish angle, sort of slanted to the front, with the very back wheels sagging down, searching for ground. As I looked to the front of the trailer the cause became obvious, the front leveler jacks had crashed two feet straight down through the asphalt and sunk to the cross support beam.

There was a phone number on the building to which the parking lot was attached, so I phoned and talked to a fellow about the situation. It turns out that yes he knew the truck was there, and no he was none too pleased with the holes in the asphalt, and that it was filled with phone books. The situation in hand, and my civic responsibility served, I sat back down on the bus stop bench to wait.

Now some people think best in the shower. Some folks do their top drawer cogitating while driving or walking the dog. For me, nothing gets the neurons snapping like sitting at a bus stop on a sunny day.

So I sat there thinking about phone books. Phone books are odd things, really.  Every couple of years a company that I presume that I am paying through some hidden fee or tax, drops of a large book with the phone numbers of 1,342,750 people I don’t know on my doorstep. I usually go through the phone book and make sure my phone number is in there, though I’m not sure why. Then I look for the first person in the book (this year it’s someone with the name of “A”. Just “A”) and the last person in the book, ( a K.C. Zzypher from White Rock) and then I put the book in the stack of phonebooks next to the phone and I never look at it again. I can’t remember the last time I used one. Most people don’t use the phone book because they already now the people they want to phone. Really, when was the last time you picked up the phone book, let it fall open to page 268 and phoned a random someone on that page that you don’t know just for fun?

We take the phonebook for granted, but let’s look at the total impact of this bit of antique technology. Each book weighs 2.75 pounds and is made of 25% recycled content. Virgin newsprint requires seventeen 30 foot trees, 3.7 acres of land, 2 barrels of oil, 7,000 gallons of water and over 4,000 kilowatt hours of electricity to create 1 ton of newsprint. Do the math and it works out that the Vancouver phone book is directly responsible for 5125 acres of trees being cut down. That’s four and a half Stanley Parks worth of trees. Pre wind storm!

Wow.

And the phone book fairy doesn’t make them appear on your door step. Each phone book is taken by truck and delivered to your door. Multiply the number of miles of roads in Metro Vancouver by a truck moving at a low average speed getting very poor gas mileage and you come out to a whole lot of pollution and green house gases. I don’t care how efficient your truck is, delivering 1,342,750 phone books causes a bunch of pollution. And totally avoidable pollution at that.

The solution is simple. First off, instead of hiding the costs of the phonebooks start charging homeowners the true cost for the darn things. Add up the price of production, delivery, and the associated social costs of pollution, and then give them the option of not getting a phone book. Of course nobody will like being charged for something that they were getting before for free, but like 1976 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Milton Friedman said, “There is no free lunch.” Somebody, somewhere is paying for the phone book, and if you want to know who that is, find a mirror. Secondly, on those rare occasions that you need to find a number, phone 411 and pay 95¢, or go online to www.canada411.ca and find the number for free.

Well that was easy. If somebody would just listen to me I could stop 5000 acres of trees from getting cut down.

1,342,750 People I Don’t Know