The Ethics of Discarded Newspapers At Starbucks

I have an ethical dilemma that has bothered me so much I had to consult my “resident ethics adviser,” namely my son.

I gave him the scenario: a man walks into Starbucks, buys his latte and a copy of the USA Today. He sips his coffee while reading the paper, and as he finishes each section, he throws the crumpled pages on the table until he reads the final section, the sports pages, at which time he tosses the entire newspaper on the table and leaves. The question is: is it wrong for me to take that newspaper with me when I leave?

We had quite a back-and-forth in which several questions were posed: Did the man give the newspaper to the store? I said I didn’t think so. Does the fact that he throws it on the table make it automatically a property of the store? I doubt it. Would the act of taking the paper rob the man of any privilege he had earned from buying the paper? Obviously not — he was the one who threw the paper there and he got all his money’s worth, including laughing out loud when he got to the comics page.

So we came to the conclusion that I was not “stealing” from the man or the store if I took the paper, but that I could be violating the man’s intentions when he left the paper there — that other customers would benefit from reading the paper.

Well, I felt better because If I am there and that happens, I am inclined to take the paper. I know, awkward. But if our analysis is correct I am not guilty of larceny but of bad etiquette. But if only things were only that simple…

There is another person, a lady, who also reads the paper at Starbucks. She likes The Wall Street Journal, which she buys it somewhere else because Starbucks in Wooster doesn’t carry it. She also tosses the paper on the table after she reads it. So last Sunday I came into the store and saw “her” newspaper sitting there. I knew she had been there but I couldn’t see her. I debated whether to take the paper but since I couldn’t establish for sure who the legitimate owner was, I left it there. It would probably wrong to take it.

But there is more. Remember the guy who likes the USA Today? Well, he has a brother and he likes the New York Times. He also tosses the paper on the table. He came in today and did his usual routine. We were sitting next to each other until he decided it was getting too cold inside. He moved outside but he had not finished reading the paper. So he tossed the main section on the table and went in search of warmer seats.

I lost track of him and when I remembered to look outside, he was gone. “Oh no,” I thought. “I only have half of the Saturday edition of the New York Times!” I went outside and looked for the rest of the paper. It was nowhere to be found. Then it hit me — “He had to have tossed it in the trash can.” He did. And how did I find out? I fished it out of there! Talk about bad etiquette…

I came home and described what happened to my son. I told him that I had solved the puzzle of whether I was violating the wishes of the paper’s original owner, at least as far as my New York Times “supplier” was concerned. If he had intended for people to enjoy the paper that he had bought, he would have made an effort to come back into the store and put the secondary pages there together with the rest of the paper. He couldn’t possibly be wanting people to enjoy the first pages and skip the sports and cultural & arts pages, could he? That wouldn’t make sense!

What he was doing was simply what was most convenient to him. The table inside and the trash can outside required the least amount of effort. After he got what he wanted from the paper, he just wanted to discard it the easiest way possible. So now I don’t feel I am violating his wishes anymore.

I know, you are thinking there is something fundamentally wrong with people like my son and I who think about this stuff. But I had to find answers and there are no manuals on proprietary rights of discarded newspapers at Starbucks. I am actually more concerned about someone going for the trash can in search of discarded papers than I am about people who think about this stuff. But how could I go without my free copy of the cultural & arts section of the New York Times?

So now I’m wondering: When will a new customer start coming who likes Times Magazine?Β Or better yet: Does the fact that I make sure no one is looking when I take the newspaper mean that what I am doing is not right? I guess I have to think a little more on that!

Ivanildo C. Trindade