Judge tosses part of ordinance requiring inspection of garbage cans for food waste

In the People's Republic of Seattle, throwing away food is a crime, as is mixing recyclables with ordinary garbage.  But the city came up with a unique way to enforce the ordinance: have garbage collectors rummaging through people's trash cans to find violators.

A state judge found that empowering garbage collectors in such a way violates the Constitution, so the city is going to have to find another way to hassle people about their garbage.

Washington Times:

King County Superior Court Judge Beth M. Andrus issued an injunction against the garbage inspections but not Seattle’s residential food-waste ban, which forbids throwing away food scraps and compostable paper

“This ruling does not prohibit the city from banning food waste and compostable paper in SPU-provided garbage cans,” the 14-page decision said, referring to the Seattle Public Utilities. “It merely renders invalid the provisions of the ordinance and rule that authorize a warrantless search of residents’ garbage cans when there is no applicable exception to the warrant requirement, such as the existence of prohibited items in plain view.”

Under the 2015 ordinance, garbage collectors were required to determine by “visual inspection” whether more than 10 percent of a trash can’s contents were made up of recyclable items or food waste. Violators are subject to having their garbage cans tagged and fines of $1 per can for curbside collections or $50 per collection for multi-family units.

Ethan Blevins, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of eight Seattle residents, called the ruling a “victory for common sense and constitutional rights.”

“A clear message has been sent to Seattle public officials: Recycling and other environmental initiatives can’t be pursued in a way that treats people’s freedoms as disposable,” Mr. Blevins said in a statement. “Seattle can’t place its composting goals over the privacy rights of its residents.”

The lawsuit argued that the ordinance essentially allowed warrantless searches, which Mr. Blevins described as an invasion of privacy and a “policy of massive and persistent snooping.”

The measure, which went into effect in January 2015, is intended to encourage conservation by requiring residents to separate their food waste and compostable paper for recycling in order to meet Seattle’s goal of composting 60 percent of waste.

These are worthy goals in and of themselves, but the means of achieving them are positively draconian.  Did they expect garbage collectors to weigh someone's food scraps to see if they pass the 10% threshold?  And is that "10%" threshold related to weight or mass?

In dealing with the huge problem of urban waste disposal, innovative ideas should be welcome.  We are running out of places to dump our garbage, and our waste is becoming more toxic.  Composting is one partial solution and should be encouraged.  But it would be far better to educate and inform the public about why composting is necessary rather than punish them for not completely obeying an ordinance.

In the People's Republic of Seattle, throwing away food is a crime, as is mixing recyclables with ordinary garbage.  But the city came up with a unique way to enforce the ordinance: have garbage collectors rummaging through people's trash cans to find violators.

A state judge found that empowering garbage collectors in such a way violates the Constitution, so the city is going to have to find another way to hassle people about their garbage.

Washington Times:

King County Superior Court Judge Beth M. Andrus issued an injunction against the garbage inspections but not Seattle’s residential food-waste ban, which forbids throwing away food scraps and compostable paper

“This ruling does not prohibit the city from banning food waste and compostable paper in SPU-provided garbage cans,” the 14-page decision said, referring to the Seattle Public Utilities. “It merely renders invalid the provisions of the ordinance and rule that authorize a warrantless search of residents’ garbage cans when there is no applicable exception to the warrant requirement, such as the existence of prohibited items in plain view.”

Under the 2015 ordinance, garbage collectors were required to determine by “visual inspection” whether more than 10 percent of a trash can’s contents were made up of recyclable items or food waste. Violators are subject to having their garbage cans tagged and fines of $1 per can for curbside collections or $50 per collection for multi-family units.

Ethan Blevins, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of eight Seattle residents, called the ruling a “victory for common sense and constitutional rights.”

“A clear message has been sent to Seattle public officials: Recycling and other environmental initiatives can’t be pursued in a way that treats people’s freedoms as disposable,” Mr. Blevins said in a statement. “Seattle can’t place its composting goals over the privacy rights of its residents.”

The lawsuit argued that the ordinance essentially allowed warrantless searches, which Mr. Blevins described as an invasion of privacy and a “policy of massive and persistent snooping.”

The measure, which went into effect in January 2015, is intended to encourage conservation by requiring residents to separate their food waste and compostable paper for recycling in order to meet Seattle’s goal of composting 60 percent of waste.

These are worthy goals in and of themselves, but the means of achieving them are positively draconian.  Did they expect garbage collectors to weigh someone's food scraps to see if they pass the 10% threshold?  And is that "10%" threshold related to weight or mass?

In dealing with the huge problem of urban waste disposal, innovative ideas should be welcome.  We are running out of places to dump our garbage, and our waste is becoming more toxic.  Composting is one partial solution and should be encouraged.  But it would be far better to educate and inform the public about why composting is necessary rather than punish them for not completely obeying an ordinance.