What is litter? What is trash? One could look for a definition given by an esteemed dictionary or Wikipedia, but we all know it when we see it. Trash is something we don’t want. It is waste. It pollutes. Its persistence in our environment makes us uncomfortable. We bag it and stick it in bins in our garages or alleys. It disappears in the early morning—picked up by unknown workers and removed to hidden places most of us will never see.
Normally I don’t think much more about trash than your average person. The day before yesterday, however, I was suddenly confronted with litter all over my neighborhood. I don’t remember when they appeared. I just remember suddenly seeing little purple bags strewn around—one bag on the front walk or lawn of every house. They weren’t in mailboxes. They weren’t stuck in front doors. They were just off the sidewalk on the private property of every single home. Inside each purple bag was a thing that looked like a newspaper insert with a few small articles and a bunch of coupons. Text on the outside of the bags read:
WELCOME TO THE NEW
twin cities values
an edition of the StarTribune
“Big savings and stories all inside!”
It rained most of yesterday, and so this morning when I went out to enjoy a walk with my dog, a majority of the purple bags were still lying around. As I walked I saw more bags. The more of the bags I saw, the more irritated I became.
You see, I love my neighborhood and my neighbors. This time of year, many of them have gardens with blooming flowers, and well-kept yards. The vast majority of my neighbors take great pride in our community and enjoy creating public gardens and public artwork as a gift for everyone to share. After a long cold winter, a nice Sunday morning walk with my dog enjoying the sights and sounds of late spring is an aspect of my idyllic urban existence.
It was irritating to get litter-bombed by outsiders. Someone at the Minneapolis newspaper thought it would be great to dump a bunch plastic bags filled with circulars around my neighborhood—marring the local beauty and adding to our collective trash. Seriously. Some dude in an office somewhere (and I’m willing to bet it was a dude), had the quality idea of printing up a bunch of minipapers, wrapping them in plastic, and hiring a bunch of people to deliver them to unsuspecting “customers.” Of course, that dude didn’t realize that I’m not his customer, I’m his garbageman: The moment the purple bag hit my lawn, it became my responsibility to throw away.
I immediately imagined what would happen if I went around collecting all of the many hundreds of bags and then drove to the front of the StarTribune offices and deposited them there. I imagined that they would not be very happy. Certainly they would waste no time calling the police and I would probably be cited for littering. Yet, it appears that there is a corporate double-standard at work. Our neighborhood was fair game for premeditated, systemic littering.
So, being an upstanding citizen and a concerned neighbor, when I got home I picked up the telephone and called the number on the bottom of the paper that was inside: 612-673-7305. The number was listed as being for “feedback or additional delivery options.” It is true that I was interested in giving “feedback” and was curious why they had chosen the “option” of polluting my neighborhood with their delivery.
After ringing a few times, an automated voice encouraged me to send my feedback by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and to stay on the line for delivery options. No way was I going to fall for a clear ploy to direct criticism to an e-mail box, so I stayed on the line for a real human being. After a short wait a female voice answered the phone and I began asking my questions.
I began by telling her that I was calling to inquire about the small bags that have been spread all over my neighborhood. I was concerned about the trash and the way it was delivered. I asked her to confirm that they were, in fact, from the StarTribune and that she worked for the newspaper, not for a call center or third party. From her defensive tone, it was clear that I was not the only person to call about this.
“That is not trash,” she replied. It was “product that was delivered to customers.” “We,” she said, “have dealt with this before.” It was not against the law to deliver product in this way. (I heard her typing on a keyboard, so it was clear she was logging a call.) She told me she would remove my “townhome” from the mailing list. If she could just have my address she would look up my account…
OK, other than the fact that I live in a house, we have a few problems here:
First, I asked her about the definition of trash. I assured her that a total stranger walking past my house dropping a bag with advertising in it—a bag that I did not ask for, pay for, want, or even know was going to appear—certainly sounds like trash to me. Systematically spreading thousands of pounds of paper and plastic over a wide area of the city would fit just about any sane person’s definition of trash. She insisted that it was “not trash,” that it was a “product.” So, I asked her, if I wrote a message on a used McDonald’s cup and dropped it in someone’s lawn, would that be something other than littering? She replied, “I don’t work for McDonalds.” Tricky.
She told me that she was willing to look up my account. This leads me to problem number two. I asked her how it is that I have an account at a company with which I have never done business? Seriously, an account was created for me to deliver litter to my doorstep and the voice on the phone said that they would be happy to make it stop if I would just tell them where I live. This is bullshit if I have ever heard it. It wasn’t an “account.” I’m not a customer. They just wanted my address so that they would remove it—opting me out of a process for which I never signed up. Actually I was talking to her as a citizen concerned about my political rights and the protection of my neighborhood environment. Yet, for some reason she insisted on couching our relationship as one of a company and a customer.
She kept coming back to me and my desire to have them stop delivering. Clearly she was confused as to why the guy on the phone wouldn’t just give her his address, opt out, and be done with it. This leads me to problem number three. I wasn’t concerned about my narrow self interest. Sure, I was offended by the litter, but I was calling about the public issue. Her system would only deal with individuals—and she had no way to address the larger issue of my neighborhood. Of course, when it came to systematically and strategically deploying the ads this was not a problem. By taking my response as an individual, however, the StarTribune could make it just about serving me and avoid collective, public responsibility.
Of course, when a company takes only individual feedback they are able to inoculate themselves against criticism with counterexamples—a common corporate strategy. When I told the woman on the phone that I was irritated by the litter, she just responded that some other customers really like the delivery and appreciate the value of the purple bag’s contents. That it is unimaginable for a bunch of “customers” to wait on hold and navigate an automated phone system to reach a real human being so they could share their joy at receiving junk mail speaks to the absurdity of such a claim. And, even if it were true, some Inuits like eating Kiviak, but I don’t see that as a rationale to begin serving it for lunch in high school cafeterias.
Finally there is the question of laws. The voice of the StarTribune on the other end of the phone assured me that it was legal and that they weren’t breaking the law by delivering their product to customers. This comment was very revealing to me. In effect, she was telling me that the relationship between company and the imagined customer was one where the company could do anything to the customer that the law didn’t forbid. As long as it was legal it was OK.
I told her that I was not calling about the “legality” of what they did or the “status of my account” or their “product.” I was looking for an explanation for the company’s behavior. Why the hell did they dump trash all over the city and why did it suddenly become every resident’s responsibility to clean up after them? Of course, she couldn’t give me the answer I was looking for. She was just the person who answered the phone and she was “happy” to process my request. Clearly she wouldn’t be able to give me any explanation of corporate behavior. I told her that I wasn’t interested in “opting out” of a process that I never agreed to. I refused to recognize the “account” they had created for me. In any case, would stopping a delivery to my individual house make any difference? I doubt it. I decided that until I can organize with some neighbors to collect future deliveries and return them to the front doorstep of the StarTribune, I would just have to imagine this delivery, and any future delivery as “free paper drop cloth” packaged in a “purple plastic doggie poop bag.”
She told me her name was Lisa, and I apologized for bothering her. After all I am sure she wasn’t getting paid enough to deal with these complicated questions. Lisa replied that her pay rate was not my concern. Indeed. I did, however, appreciate that our exchange was refreshingly free of the scripted, obligatory, pleasantries that are a hallmark of so much corporate discourse. Although at the very end of our conversation she did ask me, “Is there anything else I can help you with.”
Of course, the great irony for me was that the paper in the purple bag was called “Twin Cities Values.” The “product” that was at the center of all of this conversation was something imagined by marketers to help people—something that the imagined customer wanted. “Value” is a word couched in ethics and morality and the kinds of worth that people put in things as they relate to people. Lisa clearly didn’t understand why I would be so hostile to getting a free bag of “values” delivered freely to my front yard. This was a “service” of the StarTribune. Regardless of the fact that trash always has a cost—even if it is an invisible one—I am sure that she thought I was being ungrateful. Power is always unhappy when its gifts are turned down.
I was concerned about different Twin Cities values—not some fake marketing “values” but real ones. I was concerned about protecting the space of my neighborhood and reducing litter. Most of all, because I am an educator and an anthropologist, I was honestly trying to understand what kind of logic would think that it is rational to dump so much trash all over town. I’ll bet that the StarTribune has recycling bins in their corporate offices and I’m sure they parrot the rhetoric of being “green.” Yet in one day they manage to create a mountain of waste. On top of this, what kind of corporate manager would be so arrogant to decide that the StarTribunes’s message of “values” was so important that it was worth dumping a portion of that mountain in every single person’s front yard?
When I shared this story with a neighbor on Facebook, she told me this had been discussed by some neighbors a while back on the Hamline-Midway Environmental Group Facebook page and that a photo had been shared. The photo is at: http://i.imgur.com/TaStK.jpg I have pasted it below because it does such a great job of showing the respect that the StarTribune has for our neighborhood.
Yesterday I was told about a Facebook Page some folks in Minneapolis set up to let some folks know about the pileup of purple packages. I think it is great to see that others are also really irritated by this brand of Strib garbage. It is too bad, however, that it is just Minneapolis because the scourge is Twin Cities-wide.
Just this evening another friend told me that KARE-11 has done a bit of coverage too. It is nice that they are covering it as a “customer nuisance” issue. It is unfortunate, however, that they can’t cover it from the much more important environmental angle or from the what-the-hell-right-do-you-have-to make-me-a-customer-against-my-will angle. Much of their coverage makes it sound like there is a “delivery problem” or a “marketing problem” rather than a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship that the Strib should have to residents of our community. There is much more here than just a simple story.