ALBANY - It's been a fixture on kitchen counters, refrigerator tops, and junk drawers for decades.
But today, the Yellow Pages is a bit too ubiquitous for some, with phone books published annually in the United States outnumbering the population by 2 to 1.
While the $17-billion-a-year industry is showing remarkable resilience as other advertising-driven businesses suffer, it has become a familiar target in legislatures, where lawmakers have tried - unsuccessfully - to place limits on the distribution of phone books.
The Yellow Pages Association, an industry trade group, calls 2008 the industry's "most challenging year to date with regard to efforts at the state level to restrict directory publishers' ability to freely deliver phone books." Recent legislation that would empower residents to opt out of receiving phone books has failed or stalled in at least seven states.
The association has paid outside lobbyists about $50,000 so far this year to defend it in communities across the country. Two main points the group tries to get across are that phone books help promote local businesses and that they are made almost entirely from wood scraps collected at saw mills and recycled paper.
In Albany, city councilman Joseph Igoe is trying to build support for a law that would limit the distribution of phone books and require publishers to make it easy for people to halt delivery. Igoe said the issue came to his attention while campaigning door-to-door last spring and saw phone books wrapped in plastic littering sidewalks, driveways, and lawns.
If Igoe succeeds in passing legislation, it will be noteworthy. Proposals have been floated - without success - by legislatures in Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Washington.
Some residents in Seattle and other communities in King County, Wash., receive phone books from as many as four publishers, said Tom Watson, a waste prevention specialist for the region. "There hasn't been a good way to opt out," he said.
Phone book publishers acknowledge that many households and businesses receive more phone directories than they need. But they call it a sign of competition in a healthy business and argue that the marketplace, not the government, should determine the number of phone books distributed.
"The ones that get used will remain, and the ones that don't will go away," said Joe Walsh, president and CEO of YellowBook USA Inc., the nation's largest independent yellow pages publisher with a circulation of about 128 million phone books in 48 states.
For years, phone companies dominated the directory business and published the only phone book available in many markets. Federal rules enacted in the late 1990s required phone companies to provide listings to independent publishers at a reasonable cost and ignited an explosion of competition.