"An interesting idea". The 'Say No To Phone Books' campaign, organised by online directory 192.com, could have received a worse response [Hyperlink to hmg.gov.uk removed in June 2012 as the petition can no longer be viewed online - JB] to its petition for a central opt-in scheme for paper directories. True, a large portion of the response praises industry efforts to reduce the environmental impact of directories but it ends with a clear invitation; take your arguments to Ofcom, the regulator and competition authority for the communication industry. Unsurprisingly, 192.com has already vowed it will do so.
That campaigns such as Say No To Phone Books can be successful was shown recently in both the Netherlands and Belgium. In Holland, campaigners demanding an opt-out scheme for paper directories had suddenly accomplished their mission after a consumer watchdog programme started a debate about an opt-in system for directories. Within hours the combined Dutch White and Yellow Pages had set up a proper opt-out scheme. Only a couple of days later the Belgian government announced that from 1 January 2011 an opt-in system for phone books will be in place.
In particular the Belgian example is interesting. The Belgian government had been discussing the environmental impact of directories with the industry since 2008. As a result the industry had already 'optimised' the distribution of the phone book; last year 3.7 million copies were printed, compared to nearly 5 million in 2000. It had introduced a decent opt-out scheme to give householders the option to cancel directories. Recycling rates went up to 90 per cent. Compared to what the British directory industry is doing to reduce its environmental impact this is an impressive list indeed. But, it wasn't good enough…
Why? Not because the Belgian government is made up of tree-hugging revolutionaries. In fact, they took a very pragmatic view and decided to set up a trial; an opt-in system was introduced in nine local councils. The result left little doubt as to how much demand there is for unsolicited phone books; only three per cent of residents ordered a copy of the phone book. The only argument against an opt-in scheme - that there is still a great demand for paper directories - turned out to be hollow.
To be fair, it should be noted that there also isn't much evidence for claims that paper directories are hugely unpopular. There hardly was a demand for the Belgian opt-out scheme for directories; in 2009 only 1.5 per cent of households was marked as opted out. It seems that the vast majority of Belgians are simply not bothered. They won't make any effort to obtain a phone book but neither will they register with an opt-out scheme. Still, however you interpret the statistics, the conclusion that the environmental impact of phone books is disproportionate to its usefulness is unavoidable.
Can we have a similar trial in the UK please?