The tragedy of the carts: skipping the corral puts us all in a cage of selfishness

Yiyi Ding | Mercury Staff

Unreturned shopping carts in parking lots are society’s barometer for how much people care about others. And with a tiny bit of effort, you can make sure that barometer reads right and help workers, pedestrians and the whole community by putting your shopping cart where it belongs — in the corral.

Picture this. It’s Friday night, and like many UTD students, instead of going to the club, you’re taking the 883 West to Walmart for a grocery run. And yet when you finally stop on Mapleshade Lane, you can barely even exit the bus, because you’re met by a sea of shopping carts. At least 20 carts crowd together on the side of the road, blocking the sidewalk and killing the grass, even though the corral for returning them is barely 100 feet away. And while it may seem harmless in the moment, the truth is that skipping the corral puts us all in a cage. This is the reality of the Plano Super Walmart on Fridays and Sundays, when the cart collection point inside the store is often completely empty because customers have instead left their carts strewn about the property.

I understand why someone would abandon a cart by the bus stop. Maybe they find it inconvenient to carry their bags and hold them until the bus arrives, or unsanitary to set them on the ground. But the problem with this thinking is that it’s fundamentally selfish. Carrying heavy bags to the bus stop may be inconvenient, but the alternative will inconvenience all of us by limiting our mobility. The social contract says that for all of us to benefit, we need to make small sacrifices in the name of cooperation; when you fail to uphold your end of the bargain, you have broken this contract.

There’s a widely cited thought experiment in economics known as the tragedy of the commons: when everyone has access to a public resource, and everyone decides to act in their own interest, the resource becomes depleted. If everyone decides to prioritize their own convenience, eventually, we all become inconvenienced. Nowhere is this more applicable than weekends at Walmart, when the cart collection point inside the store is often completely empty because of people failing to return their carts, which forces new customers to search the parking lot for several minutes to find one they can use.

Let’s call this the tragedy of the carts. The truth is that no one likes to clean up after themselves, but it only takes a tiny bit of energy per person to maintain order. One person dropping a cart on the roadside is no big deal – but when five, 10, 20 all agree it’s ok to leave their waste wherever they want, the carts stack up, and we all drown. Getting on and off the bus is much harder, pedestrians cannot pass the sidewalk and the city gets significantly uglier. And all this because we have collectively agreed it is ok to ruin our space through laziness.

Maybe appeals to public welfare are unconvincing to you, but this issue borders on public safety too. Thanks to the mass of carts, for nearly half the day on Fridays and Sundays, the section of sidewalk by Walmart is nearly impassable. Anyone hoping to get through, from cyclists to pedestrians, might as well just use the street, because the Red Sea of carts will not part for them. And in the dark, a sea of metal is easy to miss. A cyclist new to the area could be biking home one minute and crashing into the jungle of sharp metal the next.

But this is Texas, after all; let’s say we ignore pedestrian safety. There is still one big reason to put in the effort to return shopping carts, and it’s quite simple: reducing the stress on low-wage workers. In the post-COVID era, corporate retailers are infamous for deliberately understaffing stores, according to Business Insider. Walmart is no exception, as its 2023 lay-offs claimed the jobs of hundreds of fulfillment workers and two thousand warehouse workers, according to Reuters and CNN respectively. The last thing an overworked employee wants to do is go out into the cold or rain to herd a train of 30 carts up a sloped grass hill. Which is exactly what you force them to do when you decide it is too hard to carry your bags a measly 100 feet to the bus stop.

You might argue I’m trying to make you work for Walmart for free. After all, if the employees are already paid to collect carts, why should we have to touch them? But I’m not asking you to gather all the loose carts in the parking lot, and I’m certainly not asking you to stand around like a convict picking up trash. I’m simply asking you to clean up the mess you created yourself. Putting things back the way you found them isn’t working for free, it’s basic human decency. If you dropped garbage on the floor in a McDonald’s, you shouldn’t just leave it there because the employees get paid to clean. You should put in the miniscule amount of effort it takes to pick it up and throw it away, because it’s your trash. It’s your responsibility. Otherwise, you’re forcing everyone in the world to clean up after you as if you’re a toddler, when really, you’re a full-grown adult.

No one likes to clean up after themselves. But when we place our own needs above the common good, we doom ourselves to needless clutter. And when we all agree to be selfish, we put ourselves in a cage. So please, leave the cart at the corral and carry your bags to the bus stop. Your fellow Comets will thank you.

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