Recycle this! Seattle’s trash-sorting police overreach

  • By the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board
  • Wednesday, August 5, 2015 5:02pm
  • OpinionCommentary

In most households there is a guardian of the recycling bin. This sell-anointed guru of garbage maintains constant surveillance over what is tossed into the bin and what winds up in the regular garbage. He or she has memorized the precise rules from the municipal recycling entity.

In a phrase: Thou shalt not mingle garbage and recycling.

Try to toss a disposable plastic bag in the recycling? Tut tut tut. Doesn’t belong there. A slightly soiled takeout container? Gotta wash it thoroughly. Hey, was that a corncob that somehow found its way into the recycling when it clearly should be in the garbage?

We support recycling, and our bins fill quickly and often. But if a nonrecyclable strays into the recycling, we don’t consider it a crime.

Seattle does.

Its garbage collectors there leave behind a Sticker of Shame to warn scofflaws of their trash-sorting transgressions.

And now, the Emerald City has authorized cash fines if 10 percent of items intended for the yard-and-food-waste container instead wind up in recycling. The fines could range from $1 for a single family home to $50 for a business.

The prospect of garbage collectors eyeballing trash and making a 10 percent calculation on the fly has prompted privacy advocates to sue the city to stop enforcement. Lawyers for the Pacific Legal Foundation argue that the government is trashing citizens’ privacy rights in its zeal to make sure food scraps are in their proper receptacle. “A person has a legitimate expectation that the contents of his or her garbage cans will remain private and free from government inspection,” the suit says.

While the courts ponder, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has said the public has been cooperating so well that he has suspended the fines, which were to start in July.

Smart move there, Mayor. We can only imagine the angry calls from Seattle residents challenging the calculating ability of the garbage collectors.

The city says the collectors can’t open trash bags, and containers “are only tagged if the contamination is clearly visible.” But Pacific Legal Foundation’s Brian Hodges tell us that training documents his office has obtained show that Seattle “instructs trash collectors to lift bags to search deeper areas of the cans, open untied bags, peer through tears in opaque bags, and look at the contents of clear or translucent bags.” Ick.

There’s much to admire about greener-than-green Seattle, but peering into people’s garbage is a bit much.

Seattle, the trick is to find and deputize the recycling zealots in each household to keep recalcitrant family members in line. Let them dole out the Stickers of Shame. Let them harangue the Refuseniks. Why not a block-by-block competition?

Think outside the bin, Seattle.

The above editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 31.

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