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Belgium to introduce opt-in system for phone books

Phone books will no longer be delivered door-to-door in Belgium. It is the first European country to introduce an opt-in system for paper directories.

"The opt-out is going to be an opt-in". The announcement, made by Enterprise Minister Vincent van Quickenborne via his twitter account, did not come as a complete surprise. The Belgian government had been discussing the environmental impact of the White Pages with the industry since 2008. As a result the industry had already 'optimised' the distribution of the phone book; last year 3.7 million copies were printed, compared to nearly 5 million in 2000. It also introduced an opt-out scheme to give householders the option to cancel directories. However, despite the fact that the opt-out scheme was well publicised few households used the scheme; in 2009 only 1.5 per cent of Belgian households was marked as opted out.

The directory's publisher, Truvo, has always rejected the idea of introducing an opt-in scheme. Its main argument against such a scheme is that one in three Belgians currently do not have access to the internet. At least in the short term there is still a demand for unsolicited phone books, Truvo argues. The Belgian government was not convinced and decided to set up a trial; it introduced an opt-in scheme in nine local councils. The main finding of the trial was that there is hardly a demand for the paper version of the White Pages; only three per cent of the residents in the councils where the opt-in system was introduced ordered a copy of the phone book.

From 1 January 2011 the books will no longer be delivered door-to-door. People wanting to receive a phone book will have to contact Truvo. Opt-in requests will expire after three years time.

38,000 trees

Truvo said to be disappointed with the "unilateral decision". In a press release the company acknowledged that working towards an opt-in system is "a realistic aim" but it called Mr Van Quickenborne's decision "premature". Truvo points out that the 38,000 trees the measure will save are equivalent to only 0.1 per cent of the amount of paper consumed by the average Belgian family.

While Truvo was still busy writing its press release Mr Van Quickenborne was already explaining to Belgian newspapers that 38,000 trees is also the equivalent of 1,512 tonnes of CO2, or "the daily CO2 emission of 476,280 families". The Minister has little time for Truvo's objections; he has asked the company to work out the details of the opt-in scheme by 31 July 2010.

Yellow Pages

Under current legislation Belgacom, the main telecommunications company in Belgium, has to deliver a copy of the phone book to each household with a landline. In order to introduce an opt-in system for the White Pages this part of Belgacom's universal service obligation will be scrapped. The Yellow Pages is not affected by the decision as it is a purely commercial product.

Mr Van Quickenborne's decision does mean the future of Truvo is uncertain. The company has had the contract for printing and distributing the White Pages ever since 1968. As part of the deal Truvo covers the cost of printing and distributing the White Pages, and in return it gets the rights to the Yellow Pages. Truvo may now be losing these rights.

"A key turning point"

In the UK online directory 192.com is campaigning for a central opt-in system for paper directories. Its petition for such a scheme was signed by 12,129 people and is now awaiting a response from the Prime Minister's Office. The company said the announcement by Mr Van Quickenborne "marks a key turning point in the way that countries deal with the environmental menace of unwanted phone books" and called for a Europe-wide opt-in system for phone books.

British householders can already opt out of receiving paper directories but the opt-out schemes are currently not promoted by the directories. To cancel the Yellow Pages, Thomson Local and/or BT directory householders can contact the directories either directly or via the Junk Buster website.

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Last updated: 
14th May 2011