Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Is leaving the newspaper on the train the right thing to do?

If you commute to work on public transportation in a city, you're probably very familiar with your city's commuter paper(s).  When I lived in Chicago, it was the RedEye ; here in DC, it's the Express.  That day's edition of the major paper (The Washington Post , in this case) is shrunk down and dumbed down into a quick and easy read.  There are kiosks everywhere with big stacks of them for free, and sometimes there'll even be people handing them out to you as you walk into the train, making sure thousands of copies get distributed to commuters. 
I read the Express.  It's hardly a mind-stimulating exercise, but it gives me a general overview of most of the news of the day, and pretty good coverage of what festivals/shows/concerts/etc are going on in the city, plus various odd tidbits I can call on for small talk at a later date.  Plus, the length is almost perfect for me-- unless there's a particularly large inset, I'm at the back of the paper in the celebrity gossip section by the end of my 20-minute ride.  And since I drink my morning coffee at work, I'm not usually up for much heavy thinking pre-caffeine anyway, so the Express is just about right.
However, I make it a point of never taking a copy of the Express on my way into the train station.  Instead, I purposefully board the Metro car at the opposite end of where I plan to sit and walk the length of the train car, scanning the empty seats and floors for a copy of the Express lying around that I can grab.  I probably find one about 75% of the time, and if I don't, I just sit with my thoughts for the ride.  Reading the Express is not so important to me that I need to waste another copy in order to have a guaranteed read.  (Yes, I know that the copies are already printed, so it's not directly wasteful, but there must be some sort of research they do on how many copies are used that helps them decide how many to print, so it's indirect earth-friendliness, really!)
The catch comes at the end of the ride.  My policy has always been just to leave the paper on the train-- that's where I got it, that's where I should leave it, right?  But I was talking to my boyfriend about this the other day, and he disagreed.  "That's littering," he said.  "You're cluttering up the train, making a mess for other people rather than cleaning up after yourself."
I explained my whole rationale.  "But there will be other people who want to read the paper!  If I toss my perfectly good paper in the recycling bin, they will have to get a brand new one.  There are these huge garbage bins packed full of papers at the train exits.  I know they're going to be recycled, but still, it seems so wasteful."
"If they were going to get a brand new one, they'd have already done it by the time they see if your paper's there or not.  If you're so concerned about the paper being reused, why don't you just put it back in the kiosk on your way out?  That way it's more likely to actually get reused.  And it's better than littering."
"But... but... it's like a social contract!  We don't pick up new papers because we know there will be old ones on the train.  If I helped decrease the number of papers on the train, that would cause people to reevaluate their plans and probably use more new papers in the long run.  Besides, it's not messy litter.  I fold it up nicely and put it between the seat and the wall. It wouldn't bother you if you weren't looking for it."
At which point he sighed, gave me a look, and then gave up.
But it has kind of stuck with me.  Am I one piece of a larger whole, or is this just something in my own head?  If I am really one of the only people who doesn't take a new paper because there will be used papers available to me, then the benefit of leaving the paper on the train to help conserve resources doesn't outweigh the fact that I'm cluttering up the train for other passengers and making more of a mess for the staff to clean up, and I should take my paper with me and put it back in the kiosk.  But if other people think like me, and there really does need to be a critical mass of papers left on the train to keep the whole cycle going, then I am one piece of a group that's working together to share and conserve resources, and that's pretty cool.
So I thought I would draw on the wisdom and experience of the public transit riders who read Money and Values.  Whether you live in DC or not, have you come across this situation?  Do people leave papers on the train in your city, and do other people read them?   Or even if it's not from personal experience, does my thought process make sense or does it sound crazy to you? 
And yes, I know that either way it isn't a big deal and I am probably over-thinking this!  I'm just curious now...


MoneyChangesThingsw said...

I can't believe this - I have the same internal argument. When I get to the airport I often look around to find an abandoned newspaper, not to be cheap, but to be resource efficient. Okay, maybe a little cheap. But I think the question is a bit different - what happens to trash on the trains? Do they recycle newspapers, or just toss all that is on each car when they're cleaned? My hunch is that they throw it, not recycle it. Then it's better to recycle your reused newspaper, since otherwise it may be landfill. I SUPPOSE one could find the answer to this question by talking to the Metro people, if you have a day to devote to the research!

Punny Money said...

I think the tradition of leaving newspapers on the train pertains only to newspapers people normally pay for, not free commuter editions, so as to save the next person some money or give them something for free that they normally wouldn't spend money to purchase. But I can see your eco-friendly point. Maybe you can leave a Post-It note on top of your left-behind paper saying, "I was left behind to help save trees. Please read me!"

That said, it's also a common fallacy that newspapers kill trees. Virtually all tree paper comes from tree farms that are planted specifically for paper purposes. In fact, without newspapers, there might not be as much tree planting as there is today.

Clever Dude said...

It's fine to grow trees that are just used for newspapers, but you're also using up the land's resources to grow those trees. There's only so much growth the land can support before it must be artificially nourished. And then where are you getting that nourishment (aka fertilizer and water)? You're diverting resources that could be used for something else, like making more paper money for Clever Dude.

Anyway, to comment on your issue, I do get a new paper every day and personally recycle it each day. I have also thought along the same lines as you, but I know from at least one experience that the train drivers just pick up all garbage and toss it, which includes papers, cups, bottles, etc.

Many people won't read a newspaper that's just sitting there because they're afraid of germs. Honestly, you don't know if the last person sneezed into the paper (which happens frequently actually), or if they had dirty hands. I'm not a germophobe, but I'm sure many people do think this way.

Sally Parrott Ashbrook said...

In London, I loved being able to get on the train and pick up a paper that someone had left on the seat. It was great.

This isn't necessarily a situation where there's an absolute right or wrong answer, though. Of course, I think you know that. :)

SMB said...

Wow, I thought I was the only one who obsessed over things like this. I agree that there seems to be no right or wrong answer, though maybe the Metro people could answer it for YOU, as moneychangesthings suggested.

I also *like* the idea of papers (any papers) left behind for others to read, but sometimes I do think of germs when it comes to picking them up myself...