The Waste

I make some broad statements about work. These are my opinions generally, but most of my opinions are based in recorded — and therefore verifiable — fact and direct experience. To say how I arrived at these statements would take up a library of books and perhaps a good deal of “walking in my shoes”. But there are some generalities that I can address in an essay. I have not because I think most of my readers thus far have reached similar conclusions in their experienced lives, so I feel like we’re all on the same page. But now it may be that I am beginning to reach a larger swath of people, many of whom have not shared in these experiences, most of whom have not even had the time to do so in their young lives. I suspect some have formed the opinion that I’m just a crazy old bat with yet another blog of dubious advice. So I’d like to address that. I’d like to talk about the waste of work today. Today seems a good time to do so, given the enormous waste work is unleashing on the world in the form of holiday shopping.

I’m going to start with that. I used to own a kids’ bookstore. Like most small retail business owners, I did an outsized part of my sales in the last weeks of the year. I did little to accommodate or encourage that. It was just how the industry works. There are more books released in the autumn than at any other time of the year, and this is especially true for the children’s and young adult markets. I never counted, but catalog listings for books released in the fourth quarter were easily as numerous as all the rest of the year combined. A bookseller organizes the entire year around these big release dates. And not just of new general books. There are thousands of book titles printed each year that are explicitly and strictly tied to the holidays from Halloween to New Year’s Day. Most of these are new titles, not merely reprints, though repackaging of classics accounts for a large portion. There are so many versions of Dickens’ Christmas Carol you might literally (ha…) build a comfortable house out of them.

You can’t sell these holiday books at any other time of the year, not even at deep discount (I tried…). But you also can’t not have them in your store during the holidays if you expect to make your customers happy — and therefore, you know, have customers. Many of these holiday titles end up as returns, which is the industry term for unsold books that are sent back to the publisher or distributor. Returns get dumped into huge bins that are then resold as remainders for pennies a book. As a bookseller, you buy a remainders bin for some small price, but you get no choice over what is in the bin beyond maybe the option to buy a bin that does not contain soft porn or other “adult-market” books. If you buy a bin of remainders in February, it is almost all holiday books. And they are in your store until you decide to throw them away. No returning the returns; they are yours to keep. These are the piles of books you see in Barnes & Noble on the discount tables and up by the register at discount stores like Costco and the Dollar Store. They have already been in a store somewhere else and nobody bought them. Most of them are never purchased even at deep discount. This is a long explanation to say that nearly all the holiday titles you see teetering in sparkling piles in every bookstore this time of year are destined for the trash — along with a good number of the other books released in the gluttonous cornucopia that is fourth quarter publishing.

It is hard to make peace with that. 

And yet the work done in my store and work done to support my store did produce a tangible outcome. A book. A child that can read. A literate society. Reading may not be a biophysical need, and there is some indication from recent psychological and sociological research that it may not be an entirely beneficial skill. But in our culture, if you can’t read, you are deeply disadvantaged in many ways, and not merely job-related ways. If you can’t read, it is very difficult to navigate life. Warnings, directions, instructions, basic information, and all the endless form-filling that is involved in all aspects of our bureaucratic society — all this is unmanageable if you can’t read, and most of it is unmanageable if you can’t read English specifically. Moreover, those who can’t read in this culture have, at best, tenuous ties to this culture. History, art, music, religion, ideas, story are all mediated. We are not an oral culture, not even a screen culture despite the media industry’s best efforts to infantilize narrative into emojis and onomatopoeia and soundbites (whatever that means…). We are a literate culture. And I sold the keys to literacy. So I believe reading is essential and producing and purveying reading tools — books — are beneficial endeavors. But I began to think that maybe on balance, the benefits were being swamped in the remainders and other waste streams involved in bookselling. I began to feel that my job was producing more harm than good. 

So as I began to question the benefits of this job that is partly beneficial and produces access to something I consider a personal and societal requirement, I began to analyze other jobs — especially those that don’t produce anything at all. I had already come to the conclusion that vast portions of the employment world were worse than useless — most were harmful. Not merely on balance, but comprehensively harmful, producing no benefit at all. And then I encountered David Graeber’s “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”. (Which was later expanded into the book, Bullshit Jobs.)

I think this pushed me over the edge, and I kept going beyond Graeber. He talked about specific kinds of jobs, not entire industries. I applied his criteria to qualify as bullshit to work generally and found most of the things we are paid to do, and especially the things that generate the greatest monetary gain, are bullshit — with a good number of industries going beyond bullshit well into the realm of biophysical harm. I began to see that many industries are destructive and wasteful with no redeeming qualities at all, save for that stream of monetary flow and power accumulation for a very few individuals. My opinion of work degenerated from there.

I’ve found it difficult to find a job that does not produce more waste than goods, that does not contribute to pollution and degradation of our planet, and that does not perpetuate social systems of domination and violence. I’ve talked a bit about the harm entailed even in writing this blog, but now let’s look at my wage job. Today, if you are reading this, then you are probably not at work. You may be recovering from Thanksgiving. You very well may be one of the millions of people who are shopping today. I am not. I am one of the billions who is at work in the service sector on this Black Friday. I’m on the other side of the counter from all those shoppers.

I am the greenhouse manager in a small town farm market and garden center. One might think that this is a job that does not generate much harm. I did when I took the job. What could it be hurting? But then, books hurt and I think books are sacred… So I was not surprised to find that even a garden center is destructive. And I’ve decided that any attempt to find a harmless wage job is rather like trying to harm nothing while walking down the street. There are always smaller things that will be destroyed by your progress.

First, I should say that I took over this position from people who really didn’t know what they were doing. My boss, bless her big heart, is not a gardener. She’s not even a business person. She was a child psychologist back in Mexico and has only lived this new life for two years. So there was and is a good deal of extra clean-up in my job. For a sample of the magnitude of mess, here is a snapshot: she buys inventory and store supplies from Amazon. (Cue collective groan…)

So yeah, there are many waste flow problems that are not necessarily entailed in managing a greenhouse but are included in managing this specific greenhouse.

But there are other problems that I can’t resolve, messes I can’t clean up, waste streams I can’t stopper. Consider how you buy a greenhouse plant. I can think of not one example that does not have some plastic waste involved. Many of the most waste-conscious nurseries are shipping things in elaborate cardboard origami these days, and there are attempts to use plastics that aren’t petroleum based; but there is not one plant transported between a nursery and your home that does not produce some plastic trash. For each plant. And most plastic pots — for reasons I don’t understand — are not recyclable.

In the greenhouse where I work, we don’t have our own nursery. We buy plant stock. This is not unusual, but it’s not ideal. I would much rather have control over my plant inventory for many reasons, not least because I could choose what to plant. But we don’t have a farm, so we’re stuck with this system. We buy all our plants. And they all come in encased in plastic. Plastic encased in plastic. We get bedding plants in plastic pots that are nestled in plastic trays that are sometimes even bagged in plastic for shipping. We have a row of piles of trays behind the store that are stacked up taller than I am (and I’m nearly 6’ tall). Because we don’t know what to do with them other than hope a use will present itself someday. We toss the pots into the recycling bin, but I’m fairly certain they end up in the trash. And we fill up both trash and recycling bins to over-flowing every week. For a garden center. That is not particularly busy.

I will say that this is not the object of selling plants. The remainder waste at bookstores is intentional. Those books are printed, shipped, and reshipped all around the globe, knowing that they will end up as remainders and very likely trash. At the garden center, I have a job with inordinate waste flow that we do not want and would dearly love to eradicate and yet can not stop. It is that endemic to how business is done in our culture. There is no alternative. Even if we were to buy farmland and greenhouses (itself a plastic nightmare) and grow our own stock, there are still no pots that are not plastic of dubious recyclability. You would still come into our store and buy a plastic-potted plant and would have to deal with that permanent toxic waste somehow. To make your garden! An enterprise that should be good for the world! This is how messed up all our systems are.

So today… we are a year-round garden center. This means we do houseplants. (And, let’s just say as a soil-conscious person, I’m not convinced plants want to be potted for life, but that my issue…) As a farm market, we also sell food stuffs. But even that dwindles to packaged things by this time of the year. So what we really sell in the dark months is stuff. Right now, we have a store full of holiday crap. It is mostly plastic. It is socially and biophysically toxic, made in the Global South in likely horrifying manufacturing conditions out of less than salubrious materials. It will end up in landfills, also likely in the Global South, where it will poison the land for thousands of years. To add insult to injury, it is also sappy and garish and ugly and encrusted in glitter. I know I’m a snob and I try not to judge… but this is rather… down-market… I have no idea why it sells. But it does. We have all this stuff so that we can make wreaths and garlands and table-top centerpieces for sale. So. We make trash. Out of trash. And what was living fir trees. And people buy it hand over fist, throwing money at us so that they can take this grotesque thing home and put it on display for a few weeks after which point it will go in the trash. Because almost none of it is recyclable, but it also will not last until next year, being attached to fir boughs that will be a fire hazard by January. So…

My job today is to make waste. Almost nothing but waste. That may not be the specific intent, but that is the unalterable outcome of me going to work today and you coming to my store to buy what is there. Or any store to buy what is on sale in this holiday season. Because that is what this season is — a waste stream that generates revenue (you buying into it) for some people (mostly the people who produce plastic). It is taking the earth’s resources and human labor and pouring it into the manufacture and shipping and selling of trash. With maybe a few weeks of use in between sale and dump. And my job is ostensibly one that is beneficial. I am usually selling something good, something we need more of in the world. I am selling gardens and local food and community… usually. But not today.

I am not best pleased. I am also of the opinion that if this is the best that can be done in our system of work, if this is a job that has merit and yet still produces this magnitude of mess, then we probably need to scrap our entire work system and start over. Because this is not working.

This is a waste. And we are never going to be able to clean it up.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021

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