Sacramento teenager takes out the trash
In a lot of ways, Stephen Mangum is a typical teenage boy. He’s long and skinny. He’s obviously bright but a little shy around people he doesn’t know, speaking in short, cautious sentences. But 17-year-old Mangum likes to give his parents a hard time, making sarcastic footnotes whenever they speak.
He lives with his parents and sister in the Florin area, and he goes to school at the New Technology High School, a charter school that gets money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
He has a passionate dislike for McDonald’s.
“I guess it started when I was 15 or 16. I read Fast Food Nation,” Mangum said, recalling his formative years. The book documents everything you never wanted to know about the fast-food industry—from horrible workplace-safety violations to environmental destructions and the linkage between fast food and the American epidemic of obesity. It opened Mangum’s eyes and turned his stomach.
Now Mangum has a particular beef with the McDonald’s around the corner from his house. Every day, upon returning home from school, he has to spend 10 to 15 minutes cleaning McTrash out of his front yard.
So, he did what to him was the obvious thing. He stuffed several cubic feet of the stinky, greasy bags and wrappers and torn waxed cups in a box (free from the U.S. Postal Service), took it to UPS ($5.85 in shipping charges) and sent it off to McDonald’s corporate headquarters (2111 McDonald’s Drive, Oak Brook, Ill., 60523). Inside was a letter, beginning, “Dear McDonald’s Corporation.”
“I am writing to inform you of a very serious problem that has been steadily increasing in my neighborhood over the past several years. … I come home to Big Mac wrappers on my sidewalk, Super Sized fry containers in the hedges and Happy Meal toy wrappers in my flowerbed. To give you an idea of how big a problem this is, I have sent you two days worth of McLawn Litter.”
The letter promised more packages, just as often as he could send them. Mangum says he found out that McDonald’s standard operating procedures called for regular litter patrols of the area around the store, and he even found information on the corporate Web site about McDonald’s sponsoring local cleanup days, with free meals for volunteer trash picker-uppers. He wanted to know how often the litter patrols at his local McDonald’s were being dispatched and how far away from the restaurant they patrolled.
“I feel it is extremely unfair of your corporation to expect people like me to clean up the mess that is left behind while you soak up the profits,” he wrote.
Mangum concluded, “Given that the average McDonald’s employee earns $6.75/hour, and I have been spending nearly a year cleaning your product from my lawn, I have calculated that McDonald’s owes me approximately $1,207.50.”
Mangum still hasn’t gotten a paycheck. But, to his surprise, he did get a response from his McNemesis. It came not from corporate headquarters, but from a customer-service processing center in Atlanta, and was signed by a customer representative name Tim J. O’Laughlin.
“On behalf of McDonald’s USA, please accept my sincere apologies for the litter you have observed,” O’Laughlin began, before putting the blame back on the local restaurant. “If you see a McDonald’s restaurant with litter on or around its property, please bring it to the attention of the store manager.”
Then, O’Laughlin concluded, “We look forward to serving you again soon under the Golden Arches,” which made Mangum McGag. “Yeah, right. Like I’d eat there,” Mangum said, making a sour face.
Calls to McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Illinois got routed to a local PR firm called Moroch and to Shelly King. King was cheerful, and at the end of our interview she actually said, “Feel free to call me if you have any more McQuestions.”
Before that, she explained that Mangum really should take it up with the local restaurant. “They are the only ones who are in a position to solve it. When you’re sitting in Atlanta or Chicago, there’s not a lot you can do,” King said.
Mangum isn’t satisfied. First of all, “I don’t want to go in there. It’s so …” he said. Second, he’s looking at the bigger picture. He figures the problem is the same around every McDonald’s restaurant, and he wants McDonald’s corporation to do something about it.
“I asked them about advertising, and they just said that they print ‘please put litter in its place’ on the cups and bags. It’s obviously not working,” Mangum explained.
Mangum wants the company to highlight the litter problem with a McAdvertising campaign. “I’ve always figured, they have all these contracts with NBA players. Why not get a basketball player, shooting his trash into the trash can?”
Until then, Mangum has a stack of boxes ready to go. His mom, Jeanne, says she’s proud of him. “He saw a problem, and he did something about it. It’s kind of like performance art.”
His friends? “Um, they think I’m kind of weird.” See? Typical teenage boy.