I've worked at this company as a software engineer for the past 2 years now. We're a medium-sized tech company based out of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Our city has an ordinance requiring all businesses to compost and recycle. I fully support this ordinance, as in addition to being a computer programmer, I'm also a staunch environmentalist.

For almost the entire time I've worked at this company, some anonymous employee(s) have been repeatedly tossing compostables and recyclables into our kitchen trash can, which sits right next to a compost bin and a recycle bin, with a giant sign posted in front of it showing what items belong in which bin.

The person/people who do this also have a nasty habit of leaving massive piles of unwashed dishes in our kitchen sink. It is not the responsibility of our coworkers or our janitorial service to clean these dishes after us and we are expected to clean after ourselves. There is even a giant sign posted over the sink requesting all employees to wash their own dishes.

I'm not the only person who is bothered by this at our office, and me and several other coworkers have voiced our concerns to our office manager about it. Our office manager has been sympathetic and has organized numerous all-staff meetings where we went over these problems, asking everyone to be more mindful and to follow the directions posted in the kitchen. Despite this, the people who do this continue doing it anyway.

For the past 2 years, I've been voluntarily digging this person's compostables and recyclables out of our trash bin and putting them in the recycling and compost. It's pretty gross. I don't enjoy doing it, but since no one else will do it, I do - for the sake of our planet. It's also against our city ordinance, and is just frankly a colossal jerk move.

I decided that instead of putting their compost and recyclables into the compost or recycling bins where they probably wouldn't even see it anyway, I'd leave them sitting on top of the bins so that the next time they step in the kitchen they'll be able to recognize their own trash and realize which bins it actually should have gone in. I started doing this about a year and a half ago.

The very next morning after I did it the first time, I saw that this person threw all the recyclables and compostables I took out of the trash the previous day back into the trash bin. I kept doing it anyway. We had several more all-staff meetings about the recycling and compost situation, and the problem persisted regardless.

Then, just the other day, I was unexpectedly called into my manager's office. He had our HR person on the phone, and she told me that she'd been getting complaints every day for a while now that I'd been taking recyclables and compostables out of the trash. She told me that the anonymous complainant claimed that they felt "offended" by my actions, and that they were now "scared" to use the kitchen because of me. The HR person was totally unsympathetic to my situation even after I explained to her that this had gone on for almost 2 years, and ordered me to not touch the bins anymore.

I don't know if it's just me, but this whole situation feels extremely bizarre to me. I don't see anything offensive or scary about what I did. I'm also pretty annoyed that someone actually went behind my back to whine to HR instead of just confronting me directly like an adult. I find what they did to be incredibly petty and childish.

Am I wrong for feeling astounded and enraged by this incident in light of all these circumstances? I really just want to put a stop to the unnecessary waste and the leaving of unwashed dishes in our sink.

  • 4
    I just upvoted the answer. BUT you are not the compost police - I commend your actions, however, set your example for others to follow. The manager and HR sound like they are totally useless, especially since they are going against those meetings about getting people to sort their garbage... There is a better job out there...
    – Solar Mike
    May 25, 2019 at 5:12
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    This question is very long-winded, can you shorten the story a bit more to the essentials?
    – KillianDS
    May 25, 2019 at 9:22
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    If your employer wants you to stop doing something, stop doing it. If this makes you unhappy, find another job. I don't really see anything we can help with here. May 25, 2019 at 9:29
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    This needs to be cleaned up a lot. I can sense a lot of frustration from OP, and it's understandable as to why. There is just so much unrelated (to the workplace situation) fluff in this post.
    – Malisbad
    May 26, 2019 at 12:19
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    @OP: You claim that the identity of the person throwing recyclables into the garbage is unknown. Then you claim you know it's the same person/people leaving out dirty dishes and making claims to HR. These two statements cannot both be true. Do you know the identity of each of the parties involved or not?
    – Ben Voigt
    May 26, 2019 at 13:41

8 Answers 8


You are a software developer with 2 years of experience in the bay area in the bottom 1% income bracket for the field and you're now having HR complaints against you?

Find a new employer.

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    Whilst I completely agree with what you say I don't think it actually answers the question at all. The OP asks 'Am I in the wrong in this situation?' and you respond with 'Leave your job' May 27, 2019 at 16:07

I'd be curious to know what your thoughts are on this matter.

Of course, here we go.

Am I wrong?

Not basically. But in details I think you are trying to do it in a non-working way.

Let's try to imagine we are the one to put stuff whereever they want.
Would we care more if someone else takes things out? If we were a defiant kid - no we wouldn't. Instead we'd just throw it back to where it was.
Someone cleans up after us? Great! Less work!

Education doesn't work this way. Kids and stupid adults too like to do things again and again.

Am I the bad guy in this story?

Imagine we are another coworker. We enter a room with trash ON the bins and feel more like on a trash dump than in a kitchen. Probably it starts to smell and it doesn't look nice at all. Having the trash in the wrong bin looks better - we wouldn't even know it's wrong. I would find this scary.

So the answer is no you are not the bad guy. But picking trash out for display may make you the weird guy. Remember that trash in a wrong bin doesn't attract attention to others. Sorting trash does.
And perhaps you become the guy who spends work time in the kitchen instead of his workplace. This is where HR could want to join the game.

am I really wrong for trying to protect our environment

No! But you can't protect it alone. Others need to join as well.

am I really wrong for ... clean up a huge mess left by some jerk who can't follow simple directions

Yes. This jerk won't learn to do it on it's own. You can only convince or also force millions of people to do something, but you can't constantly clean up behind all of them.

what do you suggest I do to remedy this situation?

You experienced it helps to complain at HR about things. If you see directions are not followed: tell them.
Find other colleagues that also are upset about the dishes left unwashed. Make them act too. Don't be the only one to complain, this makes you the only grumbler among happy people. Better be a group of people that shows there is something to improve.


Am I in the wrong for cleaning up after someone else and protecting the environment?

You weren't in the wrong when you only cleaned up after someone else and protected the environment that way. Bravo for that part. Most folks who say they want to protect the environment don't do that much.

But you became in the wrong when you decided that instead of just cleaning up the compostables and recyclables you would leave them sitting on top of the bins. And apparently you have been playing this game for the past year and a half, even though it seemingly hasn't taught your target anything.

If you want to protect the environment, you could go back to cleaning up after the offender.

If instead you prefer to keep trying to teach offenders a lesson, you may need to find a different employer.


The problem is that you are engaging in a passive-aggressive behaviour which ends up to be a solution worse than the matter.

I would assess the siuation in the following terms:

  • your concerns are totally justified and understandable. You have clearly an above-than-average concern about the environment and you absolutely want to "do the right thing"

  • on the contrary, you face a company culture that apparently does not have the same concerns, otherwise there would be more efforts for enforcing better habits

  • you have tried to raise awareness, but with little or no success

  • you have difficulties - and here comes the problem - accepting that the company just does not care about something that you find profoundly ethical and just.

  • this leads you to a confrontational, but not direct attitude. When you face a culture that does not "understand" your values, leaving deliberately the trash over the bins comes out as passive-aggressive. These acts do not educate anyone, nor they will rise awareness unless you have some backup in the company; they will be perceived just as displays of anger and frustration, and to some extent this may also be true.

I know that this may suck and seem unfair, but you cannot "enlighten" people this way, it's just how these dynamics work. This is a direct call to being perceived as "problematic" and incapable to communicate properly, i.e. a "troublemaker".

I am not justifying the company by any means and I totally endorse your values, but I think we need a reality check: they do not care. Company does not care. You must find to cope and do your own good thing, or change company.

  • @JoeStrazzere Sure enough, but still they could risk the extra step and enforce good practices among the employees, which they don't.
    – Czar
    May 27, 2019 at 15:36
  • @JoeStrazzere in my company, if there are bad habit patterns, we may have very firm messages from above, and often this is reverberated to individual team supervisors to have a closer look on this.
    – Czar
    May 28, 2019 at 14:19

I get why you are feeling so frustrated. The anonymous coworker sounds gross and aggravating. But you do come across as a little over-zealous about cleaning up the mess. It's frustrating, but you probably can't change the coworker and people aren't asking you to clean it up. I'd leave it alone.

I wouldn't expect much to change about your pay or recognition at that job either. I would not put a lot of work trying to fix that. Paying a dev minimum wage in the bay area is completely crazy. You have two years of experience at that company. I wouldn't put in overtime, just update your resume, prep for interviews and get another job. You can find a job that treats you better and pays well.

  • I appreciate the honest feedback. I understand I may come across as a bit overzealous, but I must re-iterate that I am very passionate about protecting the environment and I just can't in good conscience let compost and recycling get dumped in our ever-growing landfills. If I see stuff like that in the trash (or even on the street!) I tend to go pick it up and put it in the appropriate bin. I just feel like it's my duty as a citizen to do my part to reduce unnecessary waste, and I'm kind of upset now that I can't even put the items in the right bin. Just let it go in the landfill... May 25, 2019 at 4:04
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    I understand that. But HR has already told you not to do it again. In some cases it might be useful to try and fix it, but it sounds like a horrible job. I think it would be better to just get a new one.
    – midfield99
    May 25, 2019 at 4:22

I also clean up where I work. We're a tiny company and only have the cleaner in once a week. So the trash cans overflow sometimes, and I take out the trash. Some people leave dirty dishes in the sink and sort their rubbish carelessly. So I sometimes wash dishes and re-sort the rubbish.

A couple of days ago I put a "CLEAN RECYCLABLES ONLY" sign on a bin, because, greasy plastic food boxes. It will work for a week or two.

So I understand the frustration you express. Sometimes I get fed up and stop doing this work for a few weeks. Other people have started picking up the slack. Score!

Here's the thing. We can only lead by example, by doing the right thing. We can't get people to change by shaming them. Guilt and shame as motivating incentives just plain don't work. Even Greenpeace dumps toxic waste in corporate headquarters building lobbies for PUBLICITY, not because they think it will shame the execs into changing their ways.

The fact that guilt and shame don't work poses a major challenge to the environmental movement. We can't address that challenge individually with guerrilla action in the workplace.

But we can keep on quietly doing our small parts to advance the movement. Keep on doing what you're doing. And thanks.


At first I would find it weird to see a software developer digging at the trash bin like a raccoon, but considering that there are rules and, from what I understood, even city laws, it would make sense.

Now we have to consider that "most" people don't give a rat's ass about the environment and recycling. Moreover, I would say that the person (people?) doing this has taken it personally and won't do the right thing even if god himself demands it. Also, despite the several meetings you had about this, HR is against you and your boss has also run out of options.

Therefore, I suggest you stop caring about other people's trash and do what's right with your own. This is a lost battle. If you care so much about this, maybe you should try finding another job. I know how annoying it is to work in this kind of environment. Maybe you can endure it, maybe not.


It depends on what your goals are in doing it. If your goal is to be in charge of keeping the kitchen clean then no. If your goal is to just have a clean kitchen to work in than yes you are in the wrong. Lets break this down into the two parts, the trash and the dishes.

First for the trash while it is great that your city has these rules in place and that your workplace is setup to use them. However if they are acting like this at work what makes you think they are not like this at home also where they will be producing a much larger impact on the environment than what they would do at work? If you want to have a better impact it would be much better to get them in the habit of doing the right thing at work which can increase the chances of them doing the right thing at home. Remember that while it may help to do it for them at work in the grand scale it won’t help much if they refuse (or purposely don’t) do it elsewhere.

Second for the dishes the only way you will get someone to care about cleaning them is to make it have an impact on them. (Seen plenty of dishes at places where someone will “wash” them but on closer inspection they are still dirty). If you where to stop cleaning the dishes for them so that they had to clean them themselves in order to use them that would have an impact on it works. Not to mention the impact that having the dirty dishes in there long term would get noticed by management and force action to be taken.

From what it sounds the people you are talking about don’t care and don’t want to deal with it and your actions of doing it for them is letting them continue without any concern.

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