Earth Day Lesson: Reducing Phone Books in Your Town

04/14/2011 03:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2011

Are you a fifth- to 12th-grade teacher who's annoyed by the 540 million yellow phone books littering our doorsteps each year? Concerned about the environmental costs of such waste? Looking for a green, service-learning project for your classroom that gets students involved in civics? If yes, join us at and teach the five lessons below to help try to rid your town of these annoying yellow bricks! It's a free and fun Earth Month project.




Download our Teacher Pack with family letter, survey, lessons, readings, sample charts and more. Collect a few phone books.


Prepare this four-question chart in advance to guide your lesson:
Question 1: "What do you know about phone books?" Start by showing a phone book. Ask, what is it for? How do you use it? Show me! Order a pizza or look up your school.

Question 2: "Does your family use phone books?" Take an informal survey. More than half my class families recycled them on the day they got them. There are "apps for that" now, and the Internet is easier for most.

Question 3: "What environmental problems do phone books create?" Prompts such as "What is a natural resource?" (trees, water, land, pasture, fish, animals, minerals, coal or oil). Followed by, "What natural resources go into phone books?" (trees, water and fossil fuels that cause global warming).

Question 4: "What can we do about this problem?" See what your kids come up with! One of my students nailed it and actually said, "We should write letters to our town government to pass a law so they only give phone books to people who want them." Some kids will focus on recycling or calling and canceling individual phone books, but this project aims higher. We're asking local leaders to change the law to heal a broken phone book system. We're doing something better than recycling, we're reducing, or "pre-cycling." Citizens are in charge in a democracy. This is a chance for our students to try on this role and to know they have a part to play. They can make a difference!

Lesson Two: READING

After a short vocabulary lesson, have small groups read the Scientific American article (in Teacher Pack). Have them circle the three most persuasive facts to use in their letters. End by sharing The Seattle Times "opt-out" success story and see if the class wants to work for positive change in your community!

Lesson Three: MATH SURVEY

Have students create a survey, or use the one in our Teacher Pack, to gather public opinion data from residents in your town (at malls, your school lobby, busy sidewalks or neighborhoods). After a week of collection, tally, then graph the results with your class to use them as supporting arguments in their letters, combined with their research from Lesson Two above.


Hone your class's big request in a discussion: "Class, what are we asking our leaders to do?" Discuss and decide on a plan. If kids are uneasy about writing a letter in any way, they should not have to. This step is optional.

Figure out if you're asking the town to "ban" phone books (too aggressive), create an opt-out registry (not strong enough) or form an opt-in registry where people sign up to receive phone books (just right!). Or keep it simple and just ask if large piles could be left at local grocery stores, libraries and post offices where people take them if they want, but 80 percent of them wouldn't need to be made and dumped at our homes. See what other ideas your students have!


Teaching your class some civics is a great tie-in for this project if you have time. Discussing the three branches of government at the federal, state and local level is relevant for this project. Know who you are writing letters to and how a law is passed in your town.

Work on possible hands-on art projects, such as a pyramid of 500 phone books, photos of the pyramid, videos, raps, research reports on the paper-making process or other such projects that might help convince your town to pass a law trimming back the number of phone books distributed.

Report Back:

Send a post for our blog to to share your story, results and a photo, and we'll send you bumper stickers of our banner for students who wrote a letter. If your town passes a law slowing down the flow of phone books, we'll send you our custom "Phone Books Are Dinosaurs" trophy (photo coming soon) for your school!

"We love our books, just not the big yellow ones!"