2023-12-25 4 min read

Polypropylene Christmas

Polypropylene Christmas
Scenes from a UPS store in downtown Brooklyn, NY.

It’s Christmas today, and my family is celebrating in the American tradition. It is an imperfect holiday, but as good an opportunity as any to relax – something which, to be honest, I’ve had a hard time doing recently.

You know what is relaxing to me? Thinking my way through a little corner of my life’s supporting infrastructure. For instance: The UPS driver who delivers to my workshop carries packages on an aluminum hand truck. He leaves his vehicle – a medium sized box truck – parked at the building’s loading dock for hours, taking trip after trip up and down the elevators, wheeling his hand truck along and delivering a couple dozen packages per trip.

The UPS driver who delivers to my home carries packages by hand. He spends an hour or so on my block, working from one end to the other, re-parking his truck every few houses. He’ll park a few doors down from our house, grab a handful of packages for my family and for our neighbors, and then walk from door to door delivering them.

I know both of these people (and to a lesser extent my USPS delivery people, whose schedules don’t align as neatly with my own) reasonably well. Their tools (their vehicles, their company-issued uniforms, their hand trucks and barcode scanners and transfer bags and corrugated plastic mail tubs) are easily identifiable, and if they left one behind I would notice, and make a meaningful effort to reunite them.

An Amazon DSP sort bag, left unceremoniously on the curb.

The same cannot be said for the people who deliver my Amazon packages. They leave their sort bags – woven polypropylene bags, reinforced with polyethylene – on my block on a roughly weekly basis. The generic name for these bags seems to be “large folding courier parcel bags,” and you can get 5,000 of them on Alibaba for about $10/ea, or buy them used in small quantities for thirty or forty bucks apiece.

I cannot imagine that these bags have a long lifespan. They are objects of utility, and they are treated with all the utilitarianism that you’d expect of a flexible, subcontracted workforce. I often see a courier dragging them down the block, leaving an imperceptible snail trail of polypropylene behind.

It’s an imperfect system, but it’s part of the way my world works – so I do my best to appreciate it 💞


  • Data Bike is a bike – an electric Yuba longtail – which the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization outfitted with cameras and an iPhone-based roughness sensor. They use it to measure the condition of the roughly thousand kilometers (600 miles) of unpaved bike trails in the Des Moines area. You can see street view data from Data Bike here, as it crosses the High Trestle Trail bridge near Madrid, Iowa.
  • “Darling 58” is a genetically engineered American chestnut, which for the past few years has been thought to be resistant to chestnut blight. This was a big deal: Something like three or four billion American chestnuts have been killed by blight, and adult chestnuts basically don’t exist within their pre-twentieth-century range. Darling 58 was was developed by a partnership between the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) and the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry, but a few weeks ago ACF pulled out – and it appears that a) some of the trees thought to be Darling 58 were actually a different strain, and b) Darling 58 isn’t all that blight resistant :/ 
  • There are apparently enough architects who no longer want to be architects that there’s a 9-person company which does nothing but help them leave the industry. This link sparked quite the conversation on the SOW Members’ Slack (which you should join); also, careers are hard, regardless of the industry! And I’m sure there are similar recruiting firms who specialize in transitions from other industries. If you know any, send them my way 📩
  • I’m reading Primo Levi’s Other People’s Trades, which opens with a meditation on a life lived "at the margins of the group:" "In short, I have travelled as a loner and have followed a winding path, forming for myself a haphazard culture, full of gaps, a smattering of knowledge. In recompense, I have enjoyed looking at the world from unusual angles, inventing, so to speak, the instrumentation: examining matters of technique with the eye of a literary man, and literature with the eye of a technician." I'm enjoying the book; if anyone out there wants to grab a copy and discuss in late January, join SOW as a Member and give me a shout on the #community-reading-groups channel.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks also to James, Randy, Noah, and Ed for helping to source links.

Love, Spencer

p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

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Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright is the (mostly accidental) founder of Scope of Work, which he started writing (as The Prepared) in 2013. Today he serves as its editor-in-chief and chief dilettante.
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