At the top of 2015, Seattle followed in San Francisco’s landfill-skirting footsteps when it became the second major American city to enact a mandatory curbside composting program. An upgrade from the city’s existing voluntary but “strongly encouraged” curbside scheme, Seattle officials hope that by requiring households — and businesses — to dutifully separate organic waste (food scraps, yard trimmings, espresso grounds and the like) from run-of-the-mill rubbish that a landfill diversion rate of 60 percent can be achieved within a year.

As part of the beefed-up new recycling law, waste haulers were bestowed with the power to partake in a little old-fashioned snooping to see if the contents of a garbage bin are up-to-snuff — that is, they can investigate to see if any errant compostable items have made their into the regular trash instead of the designated organic waste bin.

As I wrote back in September 2014 when the Seattle City Council unanimously passed the new law:

If a collector observes that more than 10 percent of a garbage bin's contents are compostable during a “cursory look,” they’ll leave a notice for the offending resident kindly reminding them to please knock it off take advantage of the designated food/food-soiled paper/yard waste bin that they've been provided with. Beginning July 1, a fine of $1 per observed violation will be tacked on to the garbage bills of those who continue to fail to separate pizza crusts and greasy napkins from the rest of their trash.
And apartment dwellers and businesses aren’t off the hook. Dumpsters will be routinely scrutinized for compostable items that shouldn't be comingling with run-of-the-mill, landfill-bound waste. As with single-family homes, inspectors are looking for instances where 10 percent or more of the refuse in question is composed of items that should have been chucked into a food and yard waste bin. Differing from single-family homes, apartment complexes and businesses will be issued two warnings. A third offense will result in a $50 fine.

Just a little over six months since compulsory curbside composting became law, a group of residents have revolted against the Emerald City's "Scarlet Letter Composting System” despite the fact that the $1 fine was delayed back in April in an effort to give Seattleites more time to familiarize themselves with the rules. (Due to kick in this month, the fining component of the program will now reportedly begin at the top of 2016).

Given that trash haulers obviously don’t have warrants to rifle through household trash to ensure proper sorting, the aforementioned group of Seattleites, eight in total, have filed suit claiming that their constitutional rights to privacy and due process are being directly violated.

“A person has a legitimate expectation that the contents of his or her garbage cans will remain private and free from government inspection,” reads the lawsuit, which was filed last week in King County Superior Court by the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Sacramento-based nonprofit representing the concerned residents.

The plaintiffs in the case are, no doubt, fired up. “The city's new garbage-inspection law is a gross violation of our privacy," plaintiff Greg Moon tells the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "This case is not about composting," adds fellow plaintiff Sally Oljar. "This case is about tossing our privacy rights in the trash by shaming citizens through government coercion."

Early this week, both the Seattle City Attorney's Office and Seattle Public Utilities issued brief statements addressing the pending litigation. The former argues that the curbside composting program "fully complies with the law, including the enhanced privacy protections afforded by the Washington Constitution."

SPU's statement is more robust, insisting that haulers have not been instructed to tear open trash bags on the hunt for misplaced banana peels and apple cores:

Cities across the nation monitor garbage cans for proper disposal of materials for both safety and to meet recycling goals. In Seattle, this now includes observation for food and yard waste requirement compliance.

SPU believes the instructions we've given to our collectors upholds the Washington State Constitution and civil liberties. There is no intention of opening trash bags. Containers are only tagged if the contamination is clearly visible. The guidelines state: if you can't see, don't report it and don't tag it.

Seattle customers should continue to place food, yard waste and compostable paper in their compost collection containers. The composting requirement is a necessary step in meeting the city's goal of 60% recycling. Seattle is the latest of several cities that have passed food waste composting requirements, including Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco, CA.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, of course, has plenty to say regarding the lawsuit.

“While it’s laudable to encourage recycling and composting, the city is going about it in a way that trashes the privacy rights of each and every person in Seattle,” claims Brian Hodges, the foundation’s managing attorney at its Pacific Northwest Center. “The city may try to put a happy face on the program, with assurances that it’s not nosy and meddlesome, but the internal documents tell another story. Training documents call for ‘zero tolerance’ and show garbage collectors removing bags to inspect a garbage can, peering into translucent bags, and opening torn or untied bags.”

He adds: This law makes garbage collectors the judges and juries. You’re at the mercy of their off-the-cuff estimates about the amount, or percentage, of food waste and recyclables in your garbage can. If their subjective hunch goes against you, you get a fine and/or a brightly colored ‘shame tag’ to embarrass you in front of the public.”

Although Seattle should be commended for take a strong-armed stance against organic waste co-mingling with household trash, Hodges does raise some fine points.

Any thoughts? Should garbage collectors be able to eyeball — or even rifle through, as they've been accused of doing — household rubbish to uphold a trash-sorting ordinance? Or do you think Seattle officials have indeed crossed the line into legally murky waters as the lawsuit claims?

Via [Seattle Post-Intelligencer] [Washington Times]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.