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When Free Ain’t Free

December 7th, 2008 · 16 Comments · Random Stuff

I don’t think businesses should be able to use the term “free” anymore, because it seems to me that 99% of the time, free ain’t free. BTW, reader be warned, this is a rant. I disclosed when I started this blog that I’d toss in an occasional rant. Truth is, this is only my second rant, the first one being about Halloween Trick-or-Treating. I think both my rants are actually pretty tame. If you want to read a real rant, you might check out the Master of the Philippines‘ thoughts on customer service but back to my rant, when free ain’t free. It just seems to this guru that businesses use the term “free” rather loosely (and not in the good “loosely” way). Here are my top three irritating examples of when free ain’t free.

Why do businesses say “Free with Any Purchase over $x” or “free when you buy such-and-such product”? If something is free, that means you can take it and walk out the door with it. I have a feeling that if I took the supposedly “free” item and tried to leave the store, I’d be stopped.

Example 2) BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE (also known as BOGO)
Again, if I have to buy something to get something else “free”, then it ain’t free! In this case, an accurate description would be “50% off, minimum purchase 2.”

Again, if you say I have to pay for it, it ain’t free. In this case, the business is telling me to pay for it, and then at some point in the future, they’ll give me my money back. How about not taking my money in the first place, and just give it to me FREE! Actually, I wonder on the next rebate I send in if I add up the sales tax, the postage, the interest while they had my money, and small charge for my time spent filling out the paperwork, plus copying charges (the days of nickle copies at Kinkos are long since over), would the business reimburse me for all that as well?

So when is “free” REALLY FREE?
I have on a few occasions actually seen businesses and/or people give away stuff free. A few years ago I drove by a huge pile of dirt on the side of the road with a big sign at the top of it saying “FREE DIRT“. That I believe. And on occasion I’ll drive by an old sofa or other beat up piece of furniture or old TV in front of somebody’s house with a sign taped to it that says “FREE“.Than I believe too.

And finally, last year we sent to our local sewage treatment facility’s annual open house. They had all kinds of free stuff. They gave out free coloring books, free hats, free pencils, and free coffee mugs, plus free hot dogs, chips, and soda. They hauled us around the grounds on a free train ride, and gave us a facinating tour of the facility and explained how things works. We learned that the water coming out of their final treatment was probably “safer” to drink than the water coming out of our tap at home, but no one on the tour decided to try it. The coolest thing we learned was that at the sewage facility they treat and compost all of the solids and end up with a resulting biosolids fertilizer soil amendment (see update below) that is available absolutely free, all you want and all year long. They were handing out five pound pre-packaged sacks of biosolids, but you can stop by anytime you want with an open trailer or trunk and shovel away. So I guess at least a few things in life are still free.

PS. This post, to give credit where credit is due, was inspire by another post by the Master of the Philippines, Beware Christmas Giveaways.

PPS. I intended this post to be about the deceptive use of the term “free” by business, but it seems based on the two comments I’ve received so far, it’s more about free sewage (according to Tim) and not-so-cool potentially-radioactive processed sewage sludge being pushed on an uneducated public by a multi millions dollar sludge-spreading-industry PR effort (per Caroline). Anyway, I checked again with the Goleta Sanitation District website and this is what they have to say about their biosolids (they also describe the EPA regulations, Title 40, Part 503 which they meet, for those interested readers):

“Raw sludge is removed from the wastewater in the primary treatment process and transferred to a digester. The sludge decomposes under controlled conditions in the digester at 95degrees F for approximately one month. The sludge is then moved to a stabilization basin where it continues to decompose for up to three years. The final treatment process involves dredging the solids from the stabilization basin to a drying bed where the biosolids are dried in the sun. They remain here until testing is completed and are then made available for distribution to the public.”

“The biosolids generated at the Goleta Sanitary District are classified as an exceptional quality biosolids. This means that they meet low-pollutant concentrations and Class A pathogen reduction requirements.”



16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tim // Dec 7, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    LOL -free dirt – gotta love it 🙂
    But free sewage – now that would be a real bargain! I was all excited until I read further and realized they weren’t giving it away untreated…

  • 2 The Trade Show Guru // Dec 7, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    hey Tim,
    The correct term is “biosolids” not “sewage”. 😉 And yes, it is treated. The guy giving the tour says he puts it on his lawn regularly, and has the greenest lawn in his neighborhood. ~ Steve

  • 3 Caroline // Dec 7, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    You may not think free biosolids are so cool if you know what the material contains. It’s all the pollutants, chemicals, pathogens, radioactive material removed from sewage, so the cleaned waste water can be returned to the environment. All the stuff removed, concentrates in the biosolids. Incidentally the legally correct term is processed sewage sludge, not “biosolids”.
    Legally, every month, every business, institution, and industry is permitted to dump 33 pounds of hazardous waste into sewers. Processing sludge does NOT remove these contaminants. In fact, land applied sludge is not a fertilizer; it is a complex and unpredictable mix of industrial and domestic contaminants.
    Think twice before you use it. Its made people sick, killed live stock that ingested forage grown on sludge, and degraded wells. And certainly do not use this material for growing vegetables.
    One more thing: the tour you describe is part of a multi millions dollar PR effort by the industry that profits from sludge spreading to convince you and others that the practice is safe.

  • 4 The Trade Show Guru // Dec 7, 2008 at 11:33 pm

    hi Caroline,
    Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comment and information, including the link to your website. I didn’t intend this post to be about biosolids, but I added an update with some more information on the free biosolids I mentioned. ~ Steve

  • 5 RT@Master of the Philippines // Dec 7, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    Hi Steve, fun stuff.

  • 6 Caroline // Dec 9, 2008 at 12:23 am

    Steve: These so-called “exceptional quality ” “low pollutant” biosolids can legally contain 41 ppm of arsenic, 39 ppm of cadmium, 1500 ppm of copper 300 ppm of lead, 17 ppm of mercury,420 ppm of nickel and 2500 ppm of zinc. And those are average figures. What you actually put on your land may have much higher levels of these pollutants.
    So “free ain’t free” in this case. Especially if you have to hire an attorney to defend yourself against lawsuits because sludge is polluting your neighbor’s well or causing your neighbors’ child to experience respiratory problems. And yes. you better wear gloves when handling the stuff. Landscapers have gotten skin infections when working with this stuff.

  • 7 Tim // Dec 9, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Whew! I guess you’re right Steve… a lot of the time free ain’t free!
    One thing certain businesses always give away for free is a ride on the ‘line ride’. And other businesses might give you something ‘free’ and then ‘take you for a ride.’
    BTW, I wasn’t trying to turn this one into ‘all about sewage’…

  • 8 The Trade Show Guru // Dec 9, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    @ Tim, Thanks a lot! 🙂
    @ Caroline, Thanks for the follow-up. Next thing you’ll be telling me is that the pile of free dirt is from a former gas station site and is contaminated with MTBE’s and the free sofa on the corner has fleas!
    Seriously though, I’ve never used the free biosolids and probably never will, due to sheer laziness thought.
    I guess a question if the biosolids are “unsafe” is what to do with them then? Put them in a landfill and let future generations deal with them? And what level of these naturally occurring elements IS safe? I don’t know. If we can’t trust our govenment scientists and the EPA, who do we trust? If the number is zero parts per million than I think we’re in trouble. I’m pretty sure most local tap water would be off limits…
    I do know one thing, this post will certainly teach me to never bring up the subject of “free sewage” or “free biosolids” again! ~ Steve

  • 9 Lorne Campbell // Dec 9, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    I am new around here, but to show I am enlightened, I truly believe you are a tall handsome fellow, probably would have played for the Yankees but you were a late developer.
    That said you are right about “free” I once as a child got a free goldfish from a rag and bone man in return for one of my mothers coats from her wardrobe, trust me when I say it was not free. Mum grew roses and would get truly free “biosolids” but you only got them once they had been through a horse, any horse she was not fussy having been a child in WW2.

  • 10 The Trade Show Guru // Dec 9, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    hi Lorne,
    Thanks for stopping by. I can tell from your enlightened comment that you have read the Guru’s comment rules. Good karma to you.
    I have to wonder how a witty British photographer from Bradford found me… the internet is truly an amazing thing. I clicked through to your website, and recommend that my readers do to. Great photos. ~ Steve

  • 11 Tim // Dec 9, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    Lorne : I enjoyed one of your photo slideshows. Very nice!

  • 12 Cath Lawson // Dec 10, 2008 at 1:27 am

    Steve – This is so true. Few things are really free. And whenever anyone offers you something for free, you start to wondering what they’re after from you.

    I think it’s even worse when folk give you free samples of food in supermarkets, in the hope you’ll get addicted to it.

  • 13 RT@Master of the Philippines // Dec 10, 2008 at 6:43 am

    You don’t even want to know about waste in the Philippines. I’ll mention one thing and you can look it up: Mt. Smoky

  • 14 The Trade Show Guru // Dec 10, 2008 at 10:41 am

    @Cath, Thanks for stopping by. Regarding free supermarket food samples, I know people that go to Costco at lunchtime and make a lunch out of walking around and eating the free samples.
    @RT, I’m quite curious but I’m trying to swear off this “biosolids waste” thing. Your mention of Mt. Smoky reminds me that I had a cat named Smoky when I was a kid. And that reminds me that all the cats in the neighborhood seem to use my garden as their litterbox. Damn! It always comes back to biosolids and waste! Curses! ~ Steve

  • 15 Mitch // Dec 12, 2008 at 1:42 am

    I’ll take the easy way out and say you’ve hit a couple of my gripes right on the nose. I hate rebates with a passion, and usually buy something without thinking about the rebate because, unfortunately, it’s usually something I really want. The other stuff,… well, I’ll take it, but I don’t have to like it, right? lol

  • 16 The Trade Show Guru // Dec 12, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Hi Mitch,
    I dislike rebates too. I won’t buy a product with a rebate unless it’s worth my time (i.e. more than $10 or $20), and even then, I usually curse myself for buying the product when I’m cutting out the upc code, filling out the forms, making copies, etc.
    ~ Steve

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