Sunday, June 05, 2011

Appreciating those who make ends meet

It took two weeks for a nurse who recently lost her job to find a new position. Complicating matters was that in addition to the two weeks she was without a paying job, she had to wait until the end of her first month on the new job to receive her first paycheck from her new employer.
With no savings to speak of, the former nurse needed some short-term cash to make ends meet.

"I personally had to make some money and did not know what to do," she writes.

Desperate for cash, and unable to think of other options, she decided to go through her neighborhood and collect refundable cans from her neighbors' recycling bins.

"I collected six garbage bags full of crushed cans that brought $17.50 at the local recycling center," she writes. "This was enough money to make sure I could eat for a week."

She is quick to point out that she is neither homeless nor someone trying to steal identifying information from others' trash. But she reports that the dirty looks she got from several people was enough to take any amount of pride she had left, "which, given that I was going through others' garbage, wasn't much."

"There are times in life when you just have to do what you have to do," she writes.

The experience has made her reflective. "It's sad that big companies make all the money and get rich off these discarded products, but a person who walks the neighborhood collecting cans, crushes them, and drives them to the recycling center trying to eat for a week gets ridiculed."

In the past, I've written about people who comb neighborhood recycling bins for returnable cans and bottles. Some readers have wondered whether it's wrong to do so. My take has been that as long as the property owners don't object, the recyclables are fair game.

On occasion, when I notice the gentleman who makes the weekly rounds of recycling bins in my neighborhood, I bring him a bag of cans and bottles to add to his collection.

Readers have pointed out that some municipalities count on the money from recycled cans and bottles to offset the cost of municipal recycling programs. That's true, but I still believe strongly that the right thing is for the property owners to do whatever they want with their recyclables, whether it's to recycle them themselves, leave them for pickup by the town, or encourage neighbors scavenging for cans to take them.

"Just try not to judge," the former nurse writes. "You never know when it could be you trying to make the few extra dollars just to survive."

My reader is right. Judging people who are trying to make ends meet for whatever reason they may have found themselves having to do so accomplishes nothing but to make them feel worse about what might already be a miserable situation. It's better to simply decide whether or no you want to help without passing judgment.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Anonymous said...

I thought trash was kind of public property. Note the actors who have their rubbish picked over by publishers of rag magazines.

Anonymous said...

I may be criticized for my seemingly coming down on an innocent "victim" with this otherwise sad story here. However, something doesn't quite add up. We are told that this nurse lost her job and was "desperate" during the short time between jobs and before her next paycheck could arrive from the new job. One wonders if she had leveled with the boss at her new job if maybe he or she might have provided some wherewithall by which to keep her from starving. One also wonders what kind of financial management skills the subject had since she had the type of a job in which normally the payscale provides a living wage. One wonders if previously, was she living "hand to mouth", and was that the result of her having failed to save at least a part of her previous wages back "for a rainy day"? Then, too, I am somewhat suspicious that the subject of our question today thought her only way of survival was to go through trash bins. I question the advisability of such a method of solving her problem. Did she not have a friend whom she could depend on for a small loan? Surely in the town or city she lived, wasn't there some kind of provision made from United Way or some other organization which exists to keep starvation from innocent people's door for the short time she was without funds? I apologize for sounding heartless but our subject today seems to leave much to be desired for having failed to use common sense to solve her problem.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Grandma Bee said...

Charlie, have you ever been in a position where you had 1. A medical emergency that ate your savings; 2 Moved to another state to take a job, only to find out that the employer changed its mind before your first day; 3. A spouse empty the bank account and dump you, leaving you with no cash and all the bills? Items one and two have happened to us over the last thirty years. Item three has happened to too many people we know. The next time you're in a jam that is not entirely of your own making, I hope that nobody gives you the speech you just gave.

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