Unsolicited phone books aren’t litter


The in basket: Last winter, Chuck Hower of Harper was seeking help from the Kitsap County commissioners to rid the local roads of the unsolicited telephone directories that often are left on the ground near mailboxes and otherwise in public view, sometimes for weeks. He CC’d the e-mails to me.

“What is the difference,” he asked, “between someone throwing a beer can or other litter out of a car window to litter the roadway and the intentional littering that takes place with these directories? Why is such an obvious violation of the law allowed to continue, when it is easy to track down the culprit?”

The out basket: I asked Megan Warfield of the Department of Ecology about that agency’s position on this.

“The phone book question comes up quite often,” she said. “We have never gotten an official opinion from the Attorney General’s office on this – but technically, phone books do not meet the definition of litter.

She cited a couple of state laws that define litter.

“The operative words are ‘waste material’ and ‘solid waste,’ or more simply, garbage,” she said. 

“Usable items placed in the public right of way pose an interesting question. If the item is fully functional, is it waste material or solid waste?  Probably not in the way we commonly think of ‘garbage,’ but the fact that it was discarded is an issue.  Certainly, if the item is outside long enough and becomes weathered or decayed, it becomes ‘waste.’

“That phone book left on your sidewalk that you don’t really want isn’t technically litter because it can be used as it was intended – it’s not ‘waste.’ 

“The issue is further complicated by the fact that phone books are part of phone service that communications companies are required to provide. By (utilities)  regulations, your telephone service provider is required to provide you a directory each time it is updated. 

“As annoying as I find multiple phone books myself, I think it’s a stretch to say that because they are unrequested or unwanted makes them litter.  

“Limiting phone book distribution may been seen as a barrier to competition. I also think it would be logistically prohibitive to ask the phone company to distribute phone books only to those who request them.  They probably would get as many complaints from people who didn’t get them as from people getting them and not wanting them.  So I do not think ‘litter’ is the right way to get at the problem,” she concluded.

Kitsap Sheriff Steve Boyer says he got a good response from two directory companies he called last winter asking them to clean up the unused books, but he doesn’t know that the problem won’t recur with the next issues of the books.

He also observed that it mostly seemed to be a problem in the Manchester area of South Kitsap (Chuck lives in Harper). He also said the prosecutor’s office tells him the companies can’t be prosecuted for littering, presumably due to the factors Megan discussed.

She also suggested the offended residents complain to the publishing companies if they can find the contact information.

“I know enforcement agencies are not going to pursue this as a littering violation,” she concluded. “I know it’s a waste of paper, but at a minimum, I encourage people to recycle the unwanted directories. Information on recycling is available by calling 1-800-RECYCLE.”



5 thoughts on “Unsolicited phone books aren’t litter

  1. By that rational I can dump a couch on someone’s lawn, it isn’t litter because it can still be used for its intended purpose.

  2. So, as long as the fridge I want to get rid off is still in working order, therefore not litter, I can leave it in someone’s driveway instead of disposing it properly… good to know… I also have old clothes, books, cooking pans…

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