The Pacific Legal Foundation argues in its lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court that the Seattle ordinance prohibiting food waste, which went into effect Jan. 1, “treats state constitutional protections as disposable.”
“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,” said attorney Brian Hodges, the foundation’s managing attorney at its Pacific Northwest Center in Bellevue, in a statement.
“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,” Mr. Hodges said. “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.”
The ordinance prohibits the “disposal of food waste and compostable paper from residential, commercial businesses and customers who haul their own waste” to city dumps, according to the Seattle Public Utilities website.
Garbage collectors are instructed to report residents whose trash contains more than 10 percent food waste or recyclables. Right now the penalty is a warning in the form of a bright red tag on the owner’s bin, but after Jan. 1, residents who throw away too much food or paper will have $1 added to their garbage bill, while apartment and condo owners can be fined $50.
“This law makes garbage collectors the judges and juries,” said Mr. Hodges. “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.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight Seattle residents, including Steve Davies, who said in a statement that, “Seattle’s garbage law promotes government snooping, and that’s not just offensive, it’s a violation of constitutional protections for all Seattle residents.”
The ordinance is aimed at helping Seattle reach its goal of recycling and composting 60 percent of its waste by 2015. In recent years, recycling has dropped and only 56 percent of waste was diverted in 2013, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
King County offers homeowners curbside yard waste bins for food and food-soiled paper that are picked up and used for compost.
“Nearly 30 percent of what we throw away in our garbage is recyclable food scraps and food soiled paper — and the average single-family household throws away about 48 pounds of food scraps and food-soiled paper every month,” says the King County Solid Waste Division website under the headline “Recycle More.”
Foundation attorney Ethan Blevins said that not even law-enforcement authorities in Washington are allowed to sift through people’s garbage without a warrant.
“Seattle can’t place its composting goals over the privacy and due process rights of its residents,” Mr. Blevins said. “This food waste ban uses trash collectors to pry through people’s garbage without a warrant, as Washington courts have long required for garbage inspections by police.”
Two other cities, San Francisco and Vancouver, have mandatory composting ordinances but not penalties, said KUOW-TV in Seattle.
For a family of four, that adds up to between $1,300 and $2,300 a year spent on food that gets thrown out. Altogether Americans throws away $165 billion in uneaten food each year.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nationwide 36 million tons of food are thrown away each year. That’s the equivalent of 7,000 dump trucks worth of food — every single day. That amount of food would be enough to feed the entire Seattle metro area for two weeks.
The environmental costs of this waste are adding up as well.
Food takes up valuable space in landfills, and once it’s there, it releases methane — a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. One study estimatesthat removing food waste from the landfills would be like taking one out of every four cars off the road.
Infographic: Breaking Down Food Waste
On a global level, the climate change impacts of food waste are even more startling. According to a United Nations report, if all the methane emissions from food waste in landfills were added up and compared that to the greenhouse gas emissions of countries around the world, food waste would be the third largest greenhouse emitting country.
Of course, avoiding food waste entirely isn’t possible — some parts of food just aren’t edible. The process of turning food waste into compost reduces the amount of methane released as food decomposes. That’s because to speed up the process many composting facilities use aerobic digestion and the byproduct of that is carbon dioxide. Yet only about 5 percent of the food thrown out in the United States gets diverted from the landfill and turned into compost.
Seattle is one of the few major U.S. cities, along with Portland, Tacoma and San Francisco, that have curbside composting programs. This allow residents to have their food waste collected separate from the rest of their garbage. But the programs haven’t solved the problem.
Spend a morning sorting through Seattle’s trash and you’ll see lots of food. In fact, food makes up about 20 percent of the garbage, according to studies of Seattle’s waste stream.
“When you look at it in a pile, it’s a pretty small piece of the pile. But by weight, by far the largest single piece of the garbage is food,” says Dieter Eckels, of Cascadia Consulting Group, the organization hired to sort through samples what gets sent to the dump in cities across the country.
The Challenge Of Keeping Composting Clean
Just outside of Seattle, about 700 tons of organic waste is trucked on a daily basis to a composting facility called Cedar Grove. Only a fraction of that, 10-15 percent, is food. The rest is grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste.
As more Seattle area residents send their food scraps to be composted, they’re seeing an increase in the amount of food packaging materials thrown in with the food, and that’s causing problems for Cedar Grove.
“A piece of plastic, if it enters our system, it goes through the grinder and that piece of plastic is now 10 small pieces of plastic,” says Lawrence Klein, facility manager at Cedar Grove. Klein employs a variety of methods for sifting out small pieces of glass, plastic and metal. But this adds time and money. Small bits still make it through into the final bags of compost and that makes it difficult to sell.
Seattle Cracks Down On Composting
The city of Seattle’s recycling rate is 56 percent — that’s the percentage of recyling and food scraps that get diverted from the landfill. Compared to other U.S. cities, Seattle is far ahead, diverting ten times the food waste of the rest of the country. But it’s not enough to meet the target that Seattle has set for itself, which is to divert 60 percent of its waste by 2016. In the past few years, progress toward that goal has stalled out.
“The rate we’ve been going the last two years would get us to our 60 percent recycling goal in about eight years,” says Tim Croll, the solid waste director for Seattle Public Utilities. “We really have to do something different, we can’t just sit out there and root more. We have to take it a step further and have some type of consequence.”
The Seattle City Council recently voted to start cracking down. Starting in 2015, food waste and compostable paper will no longer be allowed to go in the garbage. Families who break the rules will be fined $1.
Garbage collectors will be tasked with identifying residents who are breaking the rules, Croll says. They will still collect the garbage with food in it, but they’ll leave a note for customers that they should expect to see a $1 fine on their next bill.
“We wanted to have the least credible enforcement approach. We’re not out there to get a bunch of money on these fees,” Croll says. It’s mean to send a message and raise awareness, he explained. And the city has proof that this approach is effective. About nine years ago, they passed similar rules for recycling and saw the rate of recycling increase in response.
The city of Seattle has also conducted surveys of residents and found that 3 out of 4 people support of these rules, Croll says.
The rules go into effect in January, but garbage collectors won’t start levying fines until July.