Throwing out your own trash


Businesses, especially big businesses, try constantly to shift work from their paid staff to their customers. It's one of the major trends in business today.

Customers are willing to do the work when it saves them money or saves them time. They're delighted to do the work when it makes it easier for them to get exactly what they want--selecting their own fruit at the grocery store versus having a clerk give them a bag that includes one bruised piece that otherwise wouldn't sell.

Business will go to great lengths to get you to do unpaid work (same as to get you to buy stuff in the first place). They'll gladly pretend that it's an "improvement" in service for you to do the work yourself--a claim that's even true sometimes, as when you can look to see if a check has cleared on your bank's website, rather than having to get an employee to look for you. They'll pretend it's more convenient to do it yourself than to wait in line (and then they'll get rid of some employees to make sure that the lines don't get shorter). They'll even try to convince you that doing unpaid work for them is a moral issue.

When I was in sixth grade my elementary school class took a bus trip to Chicago to visit some museums. We brought brown-bag lunches to eat on the way, and before we went our teacher carefully coached us about gathering up our litter and throwing it away, so as not to leave a mess on the bus. When we reached that point, though, the driver used the PA system on the bus to give us alternate instructions.

Finished with your lunch? Put your trash back in your bag. Now, stuff the bag underneath your seat. I know the guy who cleans this bus. He's got a family to support and he needs the work.

That made a huge impression on me, and not just because I'm the sort of lazy person who will seize on any excuse to avoid cleaning up after myself.

When I'm hiking in the wilderness, I'm scrupulous about packing out my own trash. When I'm in a genuine public space--walking on the street or in a park--I use the trash containers provided. But I'm much more dubious about the matter when I'm in an establishment that hires someone to keep the place clean. When I leave my empty popcorn bag on the floor of a movie theater, I figure I'm helping save someone's job.

The general trend is probably unstoppable. There are so many cases where it actually is more convenient to be able to do the work yourself, that the cases where it isn't get a little hard to spot and a little hard to resist.

Economists would have you believe that the free market will take care of the matter: Customers will give their business to whoever provides the best service at the best price. Keep that in mind, when you decide whether to do unpaid labor for the convenience of businesses.

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Guest's picture

Very interesting. I never thought about it this way before.

My boyfriend's mom refuses to use self-check out registers at the grocery store because of this.

Guest's picture

Only if they were to give me a discount, otherwise I'll go to a teller. Same with banks..

Guest's picture

It's a great thing to make maintain security for people who have jobs...

But at some point those jobs have to become obsolete, especially with new technology.

I'm not saying that Joe or Bill should lose his job to a machine...

But maybe his efforts would be more valuable to the world if he did something other than pick up others' trash.

Maybe he could be a carpenter and build things. Maybe he could be a mechanic and fix things.

Whatever it is, perhaps he could actually -add- value to the world, instead of just picking up the garbage that we clean up for ourselves.

And it doesn't stop at garbage. If all drone-like jobs become obsolete, in theory, there will be more people, and hence resources, to build an even better world.

Or we could all just pick up others' trash.

Guest's picture

This is commonly called the broken window fallacy and it goes like this:
"If someone throws a stone into a shop window, the owner needs to repair it. This puts people to work and increases total output. Since this creates jobs, would we be better off breaking lots of windows and repairing them? Most folks would say this would be nonsense, since although it would employ labor, there would be no net benefit to society."

Guest's picture

I have often thought the same thing especially at ball games. At a ball game or other event where a lot of people have been crowded into a small space it seems to make more sense to get the people out quickly than holding up the process by filling up trash cans at the exit. Trash cans at those kind of places seem to get filled up quickly and become useless after a short period of time.

I've also been in jobs where productivity was discouraged. In one job I had I was expected to count incoming donations for a non-profit organization but if I counted fast enough I would have nothing to do later in the day yet if I counted too slow I was called down for not being productive so I learned how to count just fast enough and create "double-checking" procedures to stretch it out just right.

I also had a summer job at a scout camp where I would teach campers merit badge classes. If my class was small and we got finished with the subject material I had to make up projects to keep them occupied.

I'm sure in a lot of production environments you see a lot of this. No employee was to reveal that their is 'free time" and will learn how to work the system and sadly a lot of employers will not respect employees when they suggest new ideas for the company because that is not their job. The good companies however will respect and cultivate that.

Maybe the "clean up crew" can be given chances to do new things related to better customer service, store organization, etc.

I remember one job I had where I made some suggestions regarding marketing but instead they hired a consulting firm where they paid them for that one project what I would have made over three years and most of the things they did were things I had suggested.

Now I have my own company and while I a allows looking to reduce the amount of "busy work" We are on the constant look out of innovative ways to help our clients.

Guest's picture

"When I leave my empty popcorn bag on the floor of a movie theater, I figure I'm helping save someone's job."

Sorry, this is a ridiculous statement. The staff at a movie theater have *lots* of other stuff to do, and leaving your personal trash on the floor simply makes more work for them to do in the same amount of time.

To say nothing of the arrogance involved.

Guest's picture

"Sorry, this is a ridiculous statement. The staff at a movie theater have *lots* of other stuff to do, and leaving your personal trash on the floor simply makes more work for them to do in the same amount of time."

More work translates to more hours; maybe whoever is working at the theater does have more work to do and this adds to it but then again maybe he needs the hours and therefore would not mind the extra time spent at work. By dropping my candy wrapper on the floor with others I have created another hours worth of work, giving me another $7-$8 maybe and that is what he needed to buy flowers for his girlfriend... I am not happy to leave my wrapper on the floor.

No arrogance needed, only conscious.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's important to distinguish between work that's worth doing and work that's not.

In the case of work that businesses are pushing off on their customers, the work is clearly worth doing (or their customers wouldn't do it--after all, they're not getting paid). Whether employers pay someone to do that work or let their customers do it largely depends on custom and tradition, modified by a constant back-and-forth between the businesses trying to push work off on their customers and the customers voting with their purchases, choosing one business over another after taking all the factors (price, service, location, quality, etc.) into account.

Make-work--work that's not worth doing, that is only being done because someone is being paid and needs to look busy--is a terrible, soul-destroying thing. There's not much that's worse than having to look busy when you've got nothing to do. It does the worker no good, the business no good, and society no good.

Even worse than make-work is anti-work (if I can coin a term)--destroying perfectly good stuff in order to create work for someone. It not only benefits no one, it does actual harm.

My post is really only about the first sort: work that's worth doing, and the interplay between customer and business in deciding who does it.

Oh, and to refer back specifically to movie theaters, let me just say that movie theaters have many fewer employees than they did 30 or 40 years ago. It's mostly structural efficiencies (one concession stand for a dozen screens) and partially technological (modern projection equipment doesn't need to be constantly attended by a skilled projectionist), but a good bit of it is the well-trained customers who do the job of tidying up the theater.

Guest's picture

Dont use this as an excuse not to pick up your crap. I have worked in those service jobs and let me tell you, they will still hire people to clean, even if the place is relitively clean (dont be pigs and leave your sh** everywhere).

Guest's picture

Wow. Having worked in a theater before, I can tell you that gratitude is the farthest thing from a cleaner's mind when they find a bunch of people's leftover bags and cups lying on the ground. I had enough spilled soda to mop up. Really, take your bag with you.

Andrea Karim's picture

I'd prefer to pick up after myself. When I lived in China, people littered like crazy, because the government employed people to sweep the streets regularly.

This resulted in an amazing display of irresponsibility. People would throw glass bottles out of buses. Children would buy candy, dropping the wrappers after them as they went. Even though the street sweepers went through regularly, the streets were still filthy and coated in tiny bits of shattered glass.

I know that's not liable to happen here, but I have this need to leave very little behind when I'm in public.

Philip Brewer's picture

I'm with you on littering: It's an evil and disgusting thing. It makes the city less attractive, less pleasant, and less safe. I don't litter, and I often pick up litter that I see.

Maybe throwing away trash was a poor example of the general issue of businesses trying to get customers to do the work for free. I picked it because of my vivid recallection of that bus driver from my 6th grade field trip, but maybe I should have gone with self-service checkouts or the so-called customer service provided by telephone robots--something everyone hates. Because I think the issue applies to all the work that customers do for free: If it's essential to the sale, and if the customers won't do it for free, then the employer needs to hire someone to do it.

I should also make clear--I certainly expect no gratitude from the workers in the theaters who pick up my empty popcorn bag. But if the theater owners managed to train another 20 or 30 percent of their patrons to take everything to the trash cans, how long do you think it be before they decided that they could get by with paying one fewer employee to keep things clean? Based on my experience, I'd guess less than a week.

Guest's picture

I agree with the commenter who described the clean-up jobs as an example of the broken window fallacy. The net gain is greater if we don't create the mess in the first place, and the labor that would have gone into maintenance is diverted to the production of new goods.

As I see it, the issue with self-service is whether we, as consumers, are willing to pay more to have someone do things for us that we could do ourselves (or do without). Older folks might remember when gas stations had attendants who not only pumped your gas but also cleaned your windshield and checked your oil. Self-service stations were able to sell gas at a lower price because they didn't have to pay these attendants' wages. And as consumers we chose to go with them rather than continue to pay more for the old-fashioned service. In fact, there was so little demand for the old-fashioned service that it has almost completely disappeared.

Do you hire someone to clean your house or do it yourself? Mow your own lawn? Same principle.

In Oregon, they have a law against pumping your own gas, so they still have attendants. This is a case of government interference in the marketplace. Suppose there were laws forbidding you to clean your own house or mow your own lawn, in order to protect the jobs of people who do these things. Would that be a good thing? I don't think so.

Do-it-yourself is a key strategy of frugality. I see no reason why it shouldn't be practiced in the business world just as it is at home. If bagging my own groceries or using a self-service checkout can save me some money, I'm all for it.

On the other hand, there are lots of things where I don't have the necessary expertise, competence, or interest in doing them myself. And some things, like proofreading or editing, seem to require, by their very nature, that another person does them. So there's always going to be a market for other people to sell their services to me.

Guest's picture

I do pay someone to clean my own house. It takes me 30 minutes to make enough money to pay for her 4 hours of cleaning. And she is not sufficiently skilled to get a job that is "better" for society. I save time and earn more money, doing something I prefer over cleaning.

I also think there is a difference between throwing trash on public streets and leaving trash behind you at the place of business that sold it to you.

Andrea Karim's picture

Yeah, it's true, there is a difference. And since people are paid to clean up, I suppose that there's nothing wrong with leaving a bag behind.

I just feel like some people make a real point of making a mess, because they know that someone has to clean up after them. When I worked my first job as a waitress, the customers who were the worst (and who tipped the worst) were the ones who would let their kids open up every packet of sugar and spill the grains everywhere. Yeah, I HAD to clean it up, but that didn't mean that they HAD to make such a big mess.

It's because of this that I always stack my dishes for waitresses. And I wipe up my mess. And I tip like crazy. Technology will have to advance a LOT before service jobs are usurped by robots. My leaving a bigger mess behind isn't doing anyone any favors.

Am I reading too much into this?

Guest's picture

I'm not sure what kind of movement could effectively combat the practice of hiring fewer and fewer people, but if anyone had an idea it might be worth a shot. When I worked at Barne & Noble the store was very short-staffed, the pay and benefits were terrible and every day off meant a phone-call asking if one could come-on-in-anyways, also, most days were full of cranky customers because the one person that could be spared to stay at the register had a line of people waiting at "Information." Thats what I see at my grocery store now too. Four cashiers, four self-checkout stands, and endless lines of people at both (because there are always problems at the self-checkout stand). What can be done other than feeble boycotts?

Philip Brewer's picture

Like you, I don't see boycotts working. It comes down to the individual decisions of individual customers preferring to do business with businesses that pay people to provide good service. I don't see a solution except a shift in customer preferences. Which is why I write stuff like this.

Guest's picture

Oregon required filling stations to pump patron's gas the last time I was there, six or eight years ago. From one of the comments I gather this is still true. You might suppose that Oregon gas prices ought to be higher than elsewhere since they have to pay the attendants. As just a natural history observation, I checked Portland gas prices at and Seattle gas prices at As of the past 48 hours, the price range for a gallon of regular in Seattle (WA) was $2.59-$3.00. The price range for a gallon in Portland (OR) was $2.49-$2.99.

Doubtless, lots of factors enter into the price of gasoline, but this at least suggests that being able to dispense with station attendants doesn't necessarily lead to lower prices at the pump. Perhaps the price charged tends to be whatever the market will bear at a given time.

Guest's picture

If you are comparing gas prices in Seattle to those in Portland, you need to consider the differences -- if any -- in the taxes imposed by the state. Since I live in the Seattle area, I do know that our local governments add a hefty tax on each gallon sold. That might more than offset any savings we might get from pumping our own gas.

Guest's picture

I wish I were a wealthy aristocrat, with a huge family fortune I could use to employ a large staff of retainers. How pleasant it would be to know that I was providing a "living" to so many people!

But even the wealthy have only finite funds, and can't employ everyone. In real life, as opposed to fantasy, my own funds are even more limited. I must spend them wisely. I'm sorry, but I really can't afford a chauffeur right now.

Have you ever been to India? I have. The poverty there is staggering. I think you could pour in all the money in the world and it would hardly make a difference...

I don't think we can spend or consume our way out of this.

I think some of the things we learned as children are still true: don't make a mess for someone else to clean up, and don't take more than your share. Those are lessons about the vices of selfishness and the virtues of courtesy.

Guest's picture

The other day I went to Home Depot to buy a tank of propane. Outside the store they had a kiosk and a set of "gym lockers" containing full tanks. I swiped my card through the reader, placed my empty tank in the empty locker indicated and then took a full tank from the locker whose door swung open. Two minutes tops. No hassle, no waiting in line. Available 24 hours a day.

Also no direct interaction with another person. Is that a bad thing?

To many people, "service" means something that is suggested by the related word "servant". I don't like treating people like servants, and I don't like having people behave subserviently toward me. I think this is what bothers me about leaving messes for someone else to clean up: it's such an arrogant thing to do. The excuse that I'm providing them with a job feels like a very thin rationalization.

Someone still had to fill that propane tank, truck it to the Home Depot, and load it into the locker. So I was still employing someone via my purchase. But I'd eliminated the "servants" as much as possible. I think that's a good thing.

Philip Brewer's picture

There are many cases where less service is better (such as in the case where you just check on your bank's website to see if a check has cleared, without having to call a bank employee to look it up for you).

There are many other cases where getting some decent customer support would be great. I bought a DVD player that came with a busted remote. I called the support number and spent nearly thirty minutes trying to tell a telephone robot that the DVD player was fine but the remote was bad, finally reached the point where I got "transfered" to an actual person, only to get a dial tone. I ended up taking the remote back to the store where they opened a box with another player and swapped remotes. I assume they then sent the whole box--with a perfectly good DVD player--back as defective. It would have saved everyone time and money if there'd been a person I could have talked to at the manufacturer's support line. (Plus, it would have employed that person.)

Guest's picture

Wrong, dude. Just...wrong. I like Andrea's take on it. Picture a spoiled 10-year-old child of rich parents (not that that's you, just an example) who doesn't make his bed, never washes his dishes, and won't wash & iron his own clothes. Sure, his parents have a housekeeper, but she *could* be doing other, more important, cleaning jobs or making a special dinner. Instead, she's running from room to room to pick up after the lazy kid who won't take responsibility for his messes.

I'm fairly sure that there's plenty for employees to do without extra littering, and sometimes, overworked employees can't always get to everything, meaning that things like popcorn bags get left on seats for the next customers to find. Lovely. Also, leaving a popcorn bag can result in grease stains on the seat, which means that the theater ages more quickly, even (if) they hire someone to clean the seats on a regular basis. This equals a decline in customer satisfaction, and potentially an eventual loss of revenue.

Kudos to whoever brought up the broken window fallacy.

When people say "that's not MY job" it tends to result in a sad state of things. Take responsibility for yourselves, lend a hand.

Guest's picture

having worked at a cinema for over two years, i'd just like to say your altruistic concept of not throwing out the trash really isn't necessary: i'd estimate that for every person who actually threw out their trash, 3 people would just leave it (more for large movies - harry potter, pirates, etc).
if you want to be lazy, fine. but don't leave the theatre thinking you're somehow noble for "saving the job" of some 17 year old.

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