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When a million copies of the Yellow Pages were delivered to Toronto homes this summer, they carried a message that appeared to spell their demise. Boldly printed on the cover was a notice – larger than the iconic "walking fingers" themselves – telling recipients how to stop getting the books.

The message is being repeated on the Yellow Pages being delivered across Canada this year. With calls for the directory to be banned for environmental reasons, their publisher, Yellow Media Inc., is hoping that a good number of people will opt out of receiving it.

"We have no interest in delivering a book to someone who doesn't want it," says Annie Marsolais, director of communications for Yellow Pages Group in Montreal, the operating company of Yellow Media that publishes the directories across Canada. "It's all about getting it in the hands of people who use it."

The company's sustainability strategy includes printing the directories on slimmed-down paper made from waste wood, better targeting their distribution, promoting and paying for the recycling of the books, and beefing up digital alternatives. In 2009 it became the world's first directory publisher to give consumers the choice of whether to receive it in the first place. "For us it was a must," Ms. Marsolais says.

Indeed, civic leaders in U.S. cities such as San Francisco have recently curtailed the blanket delivery of such directories out of concern for the waste and mess they generate. In Canada, a protest group, the Yellow Page Mountain initiative, gathered unclaimed copies in apartment lobbies last year and delivered them to the headquarters of Yellow Pages Group.

Yellow Media is listening, Ms. Marsolais says. Yellow Pages pays into provincial recycling costs as well as initiatives such as Multi-Material Stewardship Manitoba (MMSM), an organization made up of companies that produce packaging and printed paper that ends up in the residential recycling stream.

Some 85 per cent of phonebooks in Canada are recycled, compared with 70 per cent of newspapers and 40 per cent of paper in general, she adds.

Karen Melnychuk, executive director of MMSM, says the funds contributed by "stewards" such as Yellow Pages pay for everything from curbside pickup to recycling promotion and education campaigns. Phonebooks, she says, are an "option that still has to be there," especially for people like her elderly parents, who live in a rural area in southern Manitoba and cannot find what they need online.

Yellow Media is looking to the electronic future, Ms. Marsolais says. is Canada's leading local search website, and millions have downloaded mobile search applications. However, she says, the print version "is not going anywhere." An independent study showed that one out of two Canadian households refer to the print directory each month, while more than 340,000 businesses advertise in it.

Electronic directories "are the way of the future, we're not denying it," she says, especially with bells and whistles such as video, consumer reviews and other enhancements. Meanwhile the printed books will evolve in distribution and format, she says, for example becoming "verticalized" to emphasize sectors where they are more successful.

Yellow Pages first offered to remove consumers' addresses from the distribution list in 2009, although the option was not widely advertised, and it remained in effect for just two years. The notice telling people to call or go online to opt out is prominently printed on the covers, and the opt-out lasts five years.

Last year Yellow Media stopped general distribution of the white pages in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. Consumers in those cities can ask for a copy of their local residential directory to be mailed to them. With this change, and with people declining the yellow pages, Ms. Marsolais explains, the number of phonebooks distributed nationally has dropped to 20 million today, from close to 30 million in 2007.

Numbers game

Opting in – Consumers who want a copy of the white pages in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City must request it by calling or filling in an online form. Not many people have taken up the offer, says Ms. Marsolais. Just 13 per cent of Winnipeggers have opted in. The number is in the low-single digits in Toronto and Montreal, she says, largely because wireless penetration is high in those cities, and cellphone numbers are not published unless people pay to be listed.

Opting out – The Yellow Pages opt-out option is available in all of Canada, for all markets. The rate of those calling in or filling out an online form to opt out is less than one per cent in Toronto, where one million of the directories are distributed.