In the Trenches: Acme employee gets in trouble by 'going green' while making extra greenbacks on the side

In this installment, an Acme employee learns the difference between minimizing trash and maximizing cash. Remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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Manufacturing in this country isn’t dead yet. Just ask the folks working at the local Acme plant, where the company is doing a brisk trade in the contract manufacturing business. Survival for independent entertainment media companies and software developers involves distributing compact disks filled with audio, video and software files. Acme identified quite a few of these players and set up a publish-on-demand production line to crank out CDs. By doing this, Acme served the industry.

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But, this Acme facility also helped the community by serving as a sheltered workshop for the handicapped and disabled. It’s not beyond the ability of this group of workers to burn data onto CDs, package them, gather them into customized collections and distribute them using mailing labels furnished by the media and software companies.

Some fraction of those custom CD assortments was undeliverable as addressed and the shipping company simply returned them to Acme. The contracts with the media and software companies generally required Acme to accept the returned shipments and dispose of them. Such wastage isn’t a particularly green way to operate and the disposal added a cost to the contracts, but it was more economical than requiring Acme to open each package and restock the items. So, Acme merely tossed the returned boxes into a Dumpster.

Acme also hired the disabled and handicapped for its janitorial department. The night shift janitorial supervisor, Al Bumme, wasn’t handicapped. Passionate about environmental issues, it troubled him that the “trash” that landed in the Dumpster was destined for a landfill, a situation he couldn’t abide.

If the scavenger service hadn’t yet hauled away the Dumpster before the end of his shift, Al would load the trunk of his car with as many of the unopened, undeliverable cartons as would fit. It was like a grab bag; he never knew what he’d find when he opened them at home. Al recycled those CDs either through his eBay account or through various consignment resale shops around town, thus doing the environment a favor and converting someone else’s garbage into his own cash.

But someone in Acme’s accounting department took notice. Joe Jobah, a summer intern, was assigned to handle the paperwork from both the shipping company and the scavenger service. After studying recent bills, Joe couldn’t reconcile what he saw as a discrepancy between the number of undeliverable mailings and the number of Dumpsters needed to haul them away. The returned CD count remained at historical levels, but the number of Dumpsters required began trending downward. Joe reviewed the records covering the past few years and was able to identify the onset of this apparently anomalous pattern.

In spite of knowing that a smaller bill from the scavenger service is good for Acme’s bottom line, Joe reported his findings in hopes of justifying his presence on the staff and the paycheck he so much needed for college next fall. One thing led to another and Acme’s IT department found itself installing miniature, wireless surveillance cameras at the dock where the shipping company returned the undeliverable CD packages and at the Dumpster out back. It wasn’t long before Acme had a lot of time-stamped footage that showed Al removing boxes from the Dumpster and shoving them into his car.

After Al was confronted with the evidence of what Acme considered to be theft of garbage, an examination of his car turned up nearly 150 of the undeliverable packages. Al freely admitted taking them, citing as his reason that they were going to be dumped into a landfill, an act that was neither consistent with his philosophy nor with contemporary concerns about the environment and sustainability. Recycling, Al argued, is the right thing to do in every case.

Acme terminated Al, arguing that he put the company at risk of being accused of harboring an employee who infringed various copyrights for personal gain.

How could this situation have been avoided? When is salvaging trash a crime? Should Acme have had a clear policy in place? Was Acme wise to terminate Al for this offense? Does either Acme or Al owe compensation to the media companies and software developers for lost profit on sales of undeliverable CDs headed for a landfill? Is it likely that eBay and resale shop purchases of CDs would reduce sales at traditional outlets?

An academician says:

This is a very interesting and tricky situation. Let’s start with Economics 101. If Acme is producing discs in large volume, then unit cost to produce them is probably pennies (remember economies of scale?). Thus, it might cost less to produce a new disc than it does to open and restock the returned discs. So, turning the returns into trash makes good economic sense.

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