Stop Stapler Abuse!

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This week I returned to the office after three months away. My leave was unexpected, so I hadn’t tidied up. I knew I’d return to a bit of a mess: an unwashed tea mug, an unemptied in-box, stale cereal in my snack drawer.

Here’s what I confronted when I opened the door: piles and piles and piles of mail.

Journalists get a lot of mail. Like any of you on the “buy” side of industry, I am awash daily in solicitations. The products I’m offered aren’t for my company’s purchase per se but rather stories and sources for publication. Won’t I write about this fabulous new book that explains how your career is like a crash-strewn highway? Wouldn’t I like to meet this former executive who got rich off of Microsoft shares and now runs a library for little girls in Nepal? How about coming to Disney World for a few days to watch the new Nemo show and stay in a luxury suite, gratis–oh, and attend a party or two given by an online job board?

BTW, these are all real pitches. That last one came in a box cleverly designed to resemble a treasure chest; the invite was in the form of a scroll.

Believe me, my solicitations shrivel in glamour and volume compared to my colleagues’. In the offices of TIME, you know who covers what by the stuff spilling out their doors: CDs, books, margaritas and hot sauce. And as a magazine that primarily sells news, not stuff, we don’t even get the serious goodies. At the women’s magazines where many of my friends work, they hold closet days during which they dump designer handbags, shoes and lipstick on lucky–and sharp-elbowed–staffers. (That’s right, just like on Ugly Betty.)

So anyway, I came back to work expecting to find things pretty much in the state I’d left them. I had been working from home during much of my leave, so I had my e-mail under control. I’d recorded an outgoing phone message threatening death to callers who left messages following up on pitches they’d already e-mailed. (If you sent me a pitch and I was interested, don’t you think I’d call you? Pester me all you want electronically; but making me talk to you is crossing the line.) As these constitute the majority of my calls, the red message light on my phone was blissfully dark.

But I’d forgotten to do anything about the mail. As a result, there were six U.S. Postal Service cartons overflowing with manila envelopes and bubble-wrapped packages and postcards and fliers and pamphlets.

Let me make clear these are not letters from readers. I think I’ve saved all the reader letters I’ve ever gotten in my life, and they fill a small folder. No: readers send e-mail. The ones that set pen to paper often want to discuss their personal knowledge of the druid-backed conspiracy that caused Princess Diana’s death, and those folks aren’t addressing their envelopes to the workplace reporter.

Back to the mail. I do have a point, and I’m getting to it. As I plow–slowly and with lots of tea breaks–through my piles and piles and piles of mail, I find myself getting angry. What a waste! This here has to represent a small forest. Even worse, I wind up keeping maybe 5% of it for its intended use–that is, to use in a story or as a source. The rest goes straight in the trash. Worst of all, I’m not even sure my company recycles. One of the two trash cans in my office has that recycling label on it, but I’ve noticed our janitorial staff doesn’t seem to discriminate in their daily garbage collection.

I’m not like a huge tree hugger or anything, but the amount of waste one office worker produces is really just colossal, and I’m afraid it’s going to come back and bite us hard one day. Think about it. The hours upon hours of computer use; the extra reading light to make your cubicle homier; the times you ride the elevator alone; the Post-It you just wrote to remind yourself to replace your Post-Its; the seven minutes you kept the fridge door open groping for the tuna sandwich you’re sure you left in there sometime last month.

We have a lot more control over waste at home, where, frankly, we seem to care more about stemming it. After writing a story about about how to conserve energy around the house, I went around replacing our lightbulbs with low-wattage, long-lasting ones (then I switched some back because I didn’t like how they made the house look like a gas station toilet). We recycle assiduously, flattening cereal boxes and rinsing out soup cans. I’ve registered on the Direct Marketing Association’s web site for a dollar to ebb the tsunami of catalogs.

But at work, we’re like energy-gobbling, paper-tossing, triple-stapling wastoids. Our employers care only if we’re wasting stuff they pay for, like paperclips and overhead lighting. Bosses care a whole lot if we waste computer and phone time, which almost all of us do, according to a new survey by and Harris Interactive:

Seven of 10 (69%) of U.S. adult office workers access the Internet at work for non-work purposes, and the same proportion (69%) make or receive personal phone calls on their work telephone. More than one-half (55%) send and receive personal messages on their work email accounts.

If employers are serious about becoming better corporate citizens and all that, I think one step would be to urge workers to work from home when they can. Maybe there can be some sort of reimbursement to the worker for higher electrical and phone bills. We’re far more likely to switch off the computer and separate banana skins from plastic and keep tabs on Post-It use at home, I think. Employers could keep smaller offices, where workers would use whatever station was open when they pop in for meetings.

But I just don’t see what to do about the mail.