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Business Directories Are An Environmental Tragedy

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These days it seems everything has a carbon footprint, and that includes how we look up local business phone numbers and email addresses. So for those of us wanting to minimise our contribution to climate change what's the most energy efficient way to find a local service?

The short answer is probably to walk to your neighbour and ask them if they know a good local butcher, builder or bar. But that's not always possible or fruitful. Most people need a permanent source of local information, in the form of a paper directory or online directories. Paper directories may seem more energy efficient - just get one out of the cupboard and flick through, rather than plugging in a computer, but that's not the whole story.

Paper directories use large amounts of energy and natural resource. It is estimated that to produce a year's supply of business directories in the UK alone, one million trees are felled each year. In addition, it is claimed that two thirds of directories are not even opened, wasting 57 million tonnes of paper annually. Having felled the trees, the paper production process is environmentally damaging as is the printing, plastic wrapping and distribution of directories.

Paper production requires the use of several toxic chemicals and paper mills release air pollutants into the atmosphere. Paper production is energy intensive, requiring large amounts of electricity and huge quantities of water. And the process produces solid waste which ends up in landfill. Even recycled paper produces a large amount of solid waste and toxins which don't just "disappear". They are released into the atmosphere and into waterways or end up in landfill.

Even if unused directories are put in recycling, they then have to be transported, often a long way, before the not-so-squeaky-clean recycling process can begin. And those directories that aren't recycled end up in landfill.

The tragedy of all of this is that so often paper directories are used only once or twice a year, if at all and are then replaced with the delivery of another big fat volume. This is a complete waste of energy.

Studies in Switzerland and Japan have scientifically measured the environmental impacts of using paper and online business directories and have concluded that online is definitely less damaging to the planet. Of course, computers have to be manufactured and delivered too, but they are used for any number of tasks and not solely to look up local services. It is estimated that 70% of UK households has a computer - there seems no reason for these people to also have a hardcopy business directory.

But what about the 30% of households who currently don't have access to a computer? These are often elderly people who may be daunted by the prospect of using machines and getting to grips with new technology. For them the traditional directories are familiar and appropriate and it would be unacceptable to disenfranchise them by doing away with paper directories altogether. But they are a niche product for a decreasing percentage of the population and should be produced and delivered in quantities that reflect this. A generation on and we may not need them at all.

There is of course a role for both online and offline business directories, but next time a new directory crashes down on your doormat with a huge thud, ask yourself how often you are likely to use it before the next one comes along - and what might be more useful or attractive on your shelf.
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