The Carbon Cost of Yellow Pages vs Laptops

If you compare the carbon cost of print yellow pages spam to time spent using laptops for search, yellow pages appear to produce 9X more pollution than laptops. Here’s the lowdown:

One of the stranger used by the Yellow Pages industry as a defense of their wasteful product is to claim that it’s less wasteful than using computers to look up business information. For example, they might say that it’s hypocritical for people, like me, to use computers to blog about the environmental impact of yellow pages spam since yellow pages are made from recycled and recyclable materials while computers are made from heavy metals and need a constant supply of electricity to run.

This argument start to fall apart when one looks at the percentages of recycled material used (only ~40%) and the recycling rates (only 20% on average). While both are better than nothing, both could be better if the yellow pages industry really walked their talk.

It’s certainly fair to point out that laptops aren’t the most environmentally friendly products in the world. But, is the argument put forth by yellow pages apologists appropriate?

I decided to try to attempt to run the numbers on the carbon cost of yellow pages vs the use of a laptop computer to get a feel for whether that was a valid argument. This isn’t exactly easy, but I’ll show you the assumptions I used so you can adjust for your own situation based on, say, the weight of the yellow pages you’re spammed with annually.

Assumptions

The main assumptions here are the number of printed directories companies spam households with annually together with the average lifespan of a laptop computer. For this example, I’m going with 3 printed books with an average weight of 3 pounds. In reality, I’ve received as many as 5 books per year in Minneapolis in recent years (3 from Dex plus one each from Yellowbook and Superpages). On the laptop scene, I’ve chosen 4 year lifespans. Some people definitely turn over their laptops more often than that, while some are still running laptops on Windows XP.

I’ve also dug around online for some figures for the manufacturing cost and benefits gained from recycling both yellow pages and phone books. For the recycling offset, I divided it by average recycling rates for both yellow pages and computers. Sadly, we only see those benefits 20% of the time. And don’t forget that the benefits of not creating a product that won’t be used at all dwarfs the benefits of recycling.

Here is what I came up with:

Based on the assumptions and calculations listed above, the carbon cost of running a laptop 40 hours/week (and replacing it once every four years) is 3X more carbon intensive than receiving 9 pounds of phone books annually.

In my own case, the carbon cost of using my laptop is very valuable while the phone books delivered to my home are completely wasteful.

Looking at the yellow page’s industry’s argument, does it end up making any sense? It seems like, to do so, a person would have to use their computer at least 1/3 of the time on yellow pages related searches. I think it’s safe to assume that that’s not the case. I have a hard time believing that people who are using computers are backing away from their desk (or getting off their couch, up from the table at the coffee shop, etc) to leaf through a printed directory when they could search for local businesses in seconds, compare them, read reviews, email them to friends to ask for feedback, etc.

According to Nielsen, people are not spending 1/3 of their time on line searching for local businesses. In fact, search is only the 7th most popular use of time online. Far behind social networking, online games, and email. Nielsen’s stats say that search accounts for 3.5% of time spent online.

If that’s the case, a fair argument could be made for comparing the carbon cost of the time spent using laptops for search vs. the carbon cost of yellow pages. When that’s done, yellow pages generate 9X more pollution than laptops.

Keep in mind that Nielsen’s 3.5% figure accounts for ALL searches a person conducts; not just searches conducted for the type of information one could find in a printed yellow pages directory. For example, I’ve run a boatload of searches to find figures for use in this blog post that would not be found in any of the printed directories spammed onto my doorstep annually. Chopping down that 3.5% figure to local business searches would give an even estimate of just how wasteful printed yellow pages are vs. using a small fraction of a laptop’s life on local business searches.

2 thoughts on “The Carbon Cost of Yellow Pages vs Laptops”

  1. This is an excellent analysis. I’m frustrated not only by the Co2 issues but by the fact that these get dropped on my driveway several times a year … sonit’s on ME to pick up what is essentially litter. Why is this not considered littering? It’s time for a national campaign to end this foolish, wasteful practice!

  2. This is a really excellent analysis of the issues. Your point about the rates of recycling for these directories is really underplayed, however. (Many recycling boxes won’t actually take the directories.)

    The other issues that the “Yellow Page industry” does not address include

    * the fact that when they dump their directories on my driveway several times a year, they are quite literally littering. I have not in any way requested their directory therefore, they are dumping unwanted refuse on my property. Why is this NOT criminal activity?

    * the fact putting a directory on every doorstep or driveway leaves a clear marker to criminals as to whether the homeowner is home. If there’s a directory on my doorstep after 2 or 3 days, it becomes a welcome mat to burglars.

    This wasteful and criminal activity needs to stop.

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