SEATTLE – A Seattle ordinance that bars people from throwing their coffee grounds, pizza scraps and other potential compost into their trash cans is being challenged by critics who say the liberal city is turning garbage collectors into trash investigators.
A group of homeowners has sued the city over the tactic, claiming it violates privacy protections provided by the state Constitution.
The rule that went into effect early last year requires trash collectors to tag garbage cans that contain more than 10 percent compostable material with educational information.
The tactic is projected to divert as much as 38,000 tons of extra food waste from a landfill every year. Several other cities have passed similar food waste laws, including Vancouver, B.C., San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.
Tad Seder, a lawyer for Seattle, said during a court hearing Friday on the lawsuit that garbage collectors are simply glancing at the trash to see if there is any obvious compost. They already look for dangerous items and a host of other banned materials such as paint cans, he said.
However, Ethan Blevins, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, contends the ordinance requires collectors to make a deeper dive into the private waste of Seattleites.
The case is about “whether the city of Seattle can engage in widespread and frequent inspections of residents’ garbage cans without a warrant,” Blevins said.
He cited a case that was argued in front of the Washington Supreme Court in which Port Townsend police searched a man’s garbage for evidence that he was selling drugs after the trash was placed on a curb.
The court ruled police needed a warrant to search the rubbish, even if it was in plain view near the sidewalk.
Blevins also presented an affidavit from someone claiming they were tagged for compost violations twice when their trash had been secured in black plastic bags, suggesting collectors opened the bags to search for compost.
Seder said garbage collectors are not police and they’re not looking for criminal evidence. The ordinance is a good faith effort to bring people up to speed on the benefits of composting, he said.
Collectors are not supposed to open garbage bags or root around in open bags, but they are permitted to report flagrant violations of the ordinance, he added.
“If you have half of your garbage can filled with pizza crusts, they’re going to put a tag on it,” he said.
The city initially intended to fine violators a dollar for each offense – a tactic that has been indefinitely delayed, according to Andy Ryan, a spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities.
Blevins hopes Judge Beth M. Andrus will invalidate the law entirely. She is expected to rule before April 30.
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