Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Man and the Banana Peel

An interesting thing happened on the bus ride to work today...

In the downtown area of Waterloo, A man ran to catch up to the bus, and the driver stopped for him. As the doors were opening, the man took one last bite of his banana and dropped the peel on the grass beside the bus. If he had taken the time to look, he would have known that there was a garbage can about 6 feet behind him. When he climbed inside, the bus driver made a comment about picking up the banana peel, and they got into a bit of an argument. He refused to pick it up and took his seat in the back.

He claimed that the banana peel was not garbage. His arguments were that the peel was biodegradable, and that back in history, people did that every day.

She claimed that it was indeed garbage, and that we have littering laws and garbage cans at bus stops for a reason.

This whole thing got me thinking about our morals and priorities as a society. That banana was completely organic, and it's true that it will decompose, but it would take weeks to completely disappear back into the earth as soil. I imagine that a city worker will probably pick it up off the ground as 'garbage' before that time comes anyway. So did he do the right thing? His argument that people did it all the time back in history may be true, but I don't feel that it's a valid argument for his case. There are dozens of things that people did hundreds of years ago, but we would never do those things today. Examples: living in caves, never shaving or bathing or cutting our hair, accusing gifted women of being "witches" and burning them at the stake..

Sure, those examples are a bit extreme, but I got my point across. In the middle of a forest it may be different, but it's generally unacceptable to throw a banana peel on the grass in the middle of the city. Would you be happy if someone dumped some banana peels on your front lawn?

So then I take the other side of the story. If he had dismissed that peel as garbage, and thrown it in the garbage can, then it would have gone off to a landfill. Rather than being put into a compost container and left to decompose in a "proper" place, it would just be another piece of garbage clogging up the landfill, forcing the city to eventually increase the size of its landfill and smother many more natural greenspaces with piles of garbage. Having only a garbage can with no recycling bin or compost at that bus stop forces any passersby to classify their waste as garbage, unless they want to hold onto the waste until they reach a better spot down the street. Perhaps it's the city's fault for not providing the options.

The whole ordeal reminded me of SE 101, a course that I took in first term. ("SE" stands for Software Engineering). We looked at a few case studies of example situations where the person involved had to make a tough choice, and their ethics were what helped them through.

Engineering is all about designing and planning and building to improve the world we live in. As engineers, it's our job to make the right decisions and know where we stand. So who was truly "right"? This kind of reminds me of a possible PDEng assignment topic, eh? :)

So my train of thought got stuck on its tracks. I don't feel that there really was a "right" thing to do in that situation. What do you think?


  1. Great post! This really captures what engineering is really all about - weighing the pros and cons to determine the optimal solution.

    I personally think it is better to see the banana peel go onto the ground than into the landfill. I volunteered at a women in engineering outreach program at the Waterloo landfill and one of the interesting things I learned there is that only 1/3 of what ends up in the landfill belongs there! 1/3 is recycling and 1/3 is compost. So keeping compost out of the landfill would make a huge difference.

    But someone could easily counter that argument by talking about what a dirty city we would have if everyone just tossed their compost onto the ground!

    Hopefully someday (soon) bus stops will have a garbage can AND recycling AND compost!

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