From the Heartland: Phone Books and Styrofoam

January 11, 2011 Updated: January 11, 2011

Snow piles up over trash piles. When the snow melts, some of the ugly wastefulness of 21st century society is revealed. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
Snow piles up over trash piles. When the snow melts, some of the ugly wastefulness of 21st century society is revealed. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
Snow can change the character of a midwestern city within hours. When it snows, everything suddenly looks cleaner. Like a luxurious spread of cream cheese on a burnt bagel, snow conceals a city’s filth and blemishes, presenting a more pristine persona—at least for a little while.

A few warmer days and the illusion vanishes. Somehow the trash on my street always seems to multiply under the white blanket.

After our last major melt, I went outside to clean up what the snow had previously hidden from view: An empty package of mentholated Marlboros, spent lighters, fast-food wrappers, a Coke Zero can (smashed flat), a large McDonald’s cup, a stunning array of plastic grocery bags, various receipts, several takeout menus, and a free sample of Woolite.

This year an annual delivery punctuated the mix of post-melt winter refuse—2011 phone books were distributed to our neighborhood. As always they’re free, but not everyone accepted the gift. The unwanted bound stacks of yellow paper and their accompanying yellow bags reading “The Moment You Need It…” were soon littering the block with the rest of the discards. Cue the crying Indian.

I should mention that I live near a university; many of my neighbors are college students. Given the number of unclaimed books hanging from their bags on gates, hiding under shrubs, and abandoned in yards over a week after delivery, these tech-savvy late teens and early twenty-somethings have no use for a relic like a Yellowbook (or its competing rival, the yet-to-be-delivered Yellow Pages). Apparently they also have little understanding of how to properly dispose of something.

While I am old enough to remember relying on this reference, I don’t think I’ve actually cracked one open in several years—like virtually anyone with an Internet connection, I look up phone numbers on the computer.

The experience prompted me to research if I could opt out of future phone book deliveries. It was pretty easy to do. If you don’t need your phone book I highly recommend it.

I wondered what our ancestors would’ve made of all the over-800-page tomes we print that so quickly become trash. I saw a television program recently that discussed how paper was manufactured in post-colonial America. Before the days of cheap newsprint, and the technology required to create pages from wood pulp, paper was made from a slurry of the town’s old rags. Back then, making paper—like nearly everything else—was a craft that took time and effort.

Today, paper costs little to produce, at least in dollars, so little stops us from making as much as we want. If it manages to make its way into the proper container, paper can be recycled.

Used styrofoam cups&#8212they get used once and last forever. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
Used styrofoam cups&#8212they get used once and last forever. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
That’s hardly the case with Styrofoam. It also costs pennies to produce—yet another nifty byproduct of the petroleum industry—but once it’s served its short life of usefulness it becomes a curse that won’t die. You can’t burn it without sending off highly-toxic fumes (the National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam), and it will last for millennia in a landfill.

Unlike the phone book, it’s not so easy to opt out of plastic foam. It’s the “free gift” that comes with your new electronics purchase, or your takeout order. But what do you do with it once it’s served its purpose?

A lot of people question why we even have to use the stuff at all. In 2009, a group of volunteers started NoFoamChicago to ban Styrofoam from our city entirely. Like several cities across the country that have made their towns polystyrene-free, or others that are considering doing so, NoFoamChicago is working to gain support for a new city ordinance.

According to the organization, the process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and poisons our bodies, creating large amounts of liquid and solid waste. Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain. They also say that Styrofoam breaks up into pieces that can choke animals and clog their digestive systems.

So why are we still mass-producing a poison product? Simply because it’s cheap to manufacture? That’s not a very compelling case.

Need to pack food? Reusable, nontoxic options exist—my wife keeps containers in the trunk of our car in case a restaurant doesn’t offer an alternative to plastic foam. Need some packing material? Let me offer you these phone books. You just tear out the pages and crumple them up.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner