Until the phone carriers and MBTA collude to spoil it, my daily subway commute is the only time that I’m completely unavailable to the outside world. No phone calls, no email, no social networks. At only three stops, the journey is too brief to really get into a novel or do serious work, so I’m happy when I find an abandoned newspaper on a seat, usually one of those free papers designed to be read in the span of a typical commute.

Why don’t I just take one of those papers from the box or the people handing them out? Well, that’s where it gets complicated. I don’t want to take a paper because I know I’m going to use it only ever so briefly and then I’ll feel responsible for either leaving it behind – arguably littering – or recycling it right away – which seems wasteful. Throwing it in the trash or using it in some art project don’t even make the list.

The free paper publishers know that litter is a big issue – they are banned for distributing on MBTA property and made a donation of hundreds of recycling bins (bags, really) to try and appease the transit people. So back to my eco-neurotic quandary: Is it littering to leave a newspaper on the subway so that others might read it, and does it make a difference if you originally picked up that paper or just found it on the seat?

If lots of people regularly left free papers on the seats, maybe some people would stop taking papers and the total amount of paper would go down. But if nobody ever took those papers off the train, there would be an awful lot of litter at the end of the day. Like a car that loses value when you drive it off the lot, a daily newspaper gets worthless fast.

I’m sure the law is clear: leaving stuff on the T, even nice clean stuff, even leaving it on the seat, is still littering. I’d also say that once you pick something up, you’re responsible for it, so leaving found stuff is littering again. But I still recoil at the waste of reading matter. Like many people (of the Book) I have a hard time throwing away or defacing books.

So here’s my wacky utopian proposal for the morning commute and reading time:

  • If you were born on an even numbered day, you take papers on even numbered days, odd birthdays, odd paper days, and you leave those papers on the seat when you get off the train
  • If its not your odd/even day, you pick up a left paper and are responsible for taking it off the train and recycling it
  • After the main morning commute time, say 9:30am, alternate rules are off and any everybody is responsible for taking papers off the train

If everybody did this, we’d use only half as much paper for disposable free morning reading.  Fat chance of that.  The free paper people certainly don’t want to cut their circulation in half, and typical Americans aren’ t going to be interested in second-hand papers.

So until everybody switches to a more ecologically sound morning read, I will continue to be quietly grateful for minor littering, and will do my best to take my found paper with me on both odd and even days.