Greens opt for fewer Yellow Pages

GARETH HUGHES
Last updated 07:29 22/01/2013

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OPINION: New Zealand's least popular bestsellers have had their day, writes Gareth Hughes.

I probably haven't used a phone book for about 10 years, except to prop up a computer screen, and since I'm probably not the only one who thinks they are obsolete, I think it's time to stop delivering them to every household in the country.

Every year about 6.5 million phone books are printed and distributed around New Zealand, which is a lot of effort, paper and plastic.

You may not know it, but Yellow Pages Group (owned by Canadian and Hong Kong interests) is legally required to produce and deliver a copy of the Yellow Pages and White Pages to you, and you don't have a choice. They are the least popular bestsellers of all time.

With many of us using the internet instead of phone books, this is crazy. It's like being unable to say no to junk mail appearing in your letterbox. Research from Nielsen from 2010 found that only 44 per cent of those aged 15 and over used the Yellow Pages in the previous month, and 41 per cent the White Pages. I bet it's even fewer since then

The Green Party is calling for the Government and Yellow Pages Group to consider an opt-in system or at least the ability for Kiwis to opt out of receiving these books so that those who want to receive them can.

An opt-in system would limit the deliveries of phone books to those individuals and businesses that proactively requested them.

An opt-out system, on the other hand, would require the individual to actively choose to stop receiving them and books would still be delivered to everyone else.

It's important that either an opt-in or an opt-out system should ensure people's right to receive a phone book. I'm sure quite a few Kiwis still want to receive a phone book. Figures from Statistics New Zealand show that, as of June this year, about 22 per cent of New Zealand households do not have broadband access in their homes, so will still probably depend on the books to find phone numbers.

Reducing the numbers distributed could help reduce the large environmental footprint of the 6.5 million phone books distributed annually, which simply end up in the cupboard unused, thrown in the recycling or used as computer stands.

Concerned about the waste of paper and the cost of production, Yellow Pages Group has already received numerous requests for an opt-out system, with one unsatisfied recipient starting a petition calling for it.

Yellow Pages marketing director Kellie Nathan has said "the firm is very conscious that a growing number of people perceive the cost to the environment of producing, printing and delivering phone books to be greater than the value they get from them, and it is carefully monitoring public opinion.

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"It will consider introducing an opt- out when it sees enough demand."

I do hope it explains what constitutes "enough".

The detail around the regulatory requirement for phone-book distribution is complex. There is a requirement between Telecom and the Crown to provide a free local residential telephone service, part of which is a single standard listing of the Telecom residential customer's local telephone number in the telephone book. Established by the Telecommunications Act 2001, section 25 of the Telecommunications Service Obligations provides this but also states that the Crown has the power to terminate this Deed - the Crown being the Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Amy Adams.

Ms Adams knows that times have changed, with Kiwis using the internet increasingly over hard copy directories. I think it's time she revisited this issue.

The introduction of an opt-out or an opt-in system should not be too difficult to do, with plenty of examples around the world. Among countries using an opt-out system are Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States.

While choosing to opt out of phone books has proven successful overseas, Belgium, Germany and San Francisco have favoured an opt-in system to cut waste even further, with the Netherlands keen to follow suit.

Why are we still providing a service that a lot of Kiwis don't read, need or want? As technology grows, the demand for phone books will decrease. Moving to an opt-in system wouldn't be hard and we can follow other countries' lead.

I think it is time the Government and Yellow Pages picked up the phone and had a chat about moving away from delivering unwanted tomes to every household.

Gareth Hughes is a Green Party MP.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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