Nancy Bowen of Kensington has a year-old son named B.J. Like most people his size, B.J. uses up mounds of disposable diapers. His mother has been throwing them in the trash can since her son was born (after first packing the diapers into a plastic bag). And the Montgomery County trash collectors have been carting the used diapers away.
But last week, Nancy noticed that the trash wasn't picked up -- twice. When she called to inquire, she learned that a contract had been put out on her household more deadly than any the Mafia ever imagined.
The garbagemen declined to remove any of the Bowens' trash because B.J.'s diapers were included.
Nancy Bowen was incredulous. How did the garbagemen know what was in her cans, since she had carefully plastic-bagged and twist-tied B.J.'s diapers? When you've been around garbage as long as these guys have, an official told her, you know what's in a can, plastic bag or not.
And what was Nancy supposed to do with the used diapers? Tear out the inner liner and flush it down the toilet, suggested the official.
But that would clog the drain, Nancy pointed out. That's your problem, said the official.
Anything else they could suggest? Well, you can take the used diapers to the Montgomery County Solid Waste Transfer Station over in Rockville, said the official. Just what the mother of a one-year-old has plenty of time to do.
Is it really legal for county garbagemen to decline garbage that contains used diapers? Yes, says Pamela Nicewarner of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection's Refuse Collection Section.
The relevant language, from the department's regulations, reads: "Any waste deemed to be infectious shall not be collected." Nancy Bowen's trash got "deemed" in a big way.
If the collection people can't see the diapers, or smell them, there's usually no problem, Pamela says. But if diapers are left in open trash cans, or in plastic bags "overfilled to the gill," the garbagemen will probably notice them, and they don't have to touch them.
The secret? Make sure the men don't know diapers are in there, says Pamela. Mask that stench any way you can.
The situation is no different elsewhere in the area. A similar regulation protecting the health of garbagemen is on the books in every major area jurisdiction. Like Pamela, officials around the beltway report very few incidents in which garbagemen have refused to cart diapers away. But if they want to make a federal case out of one can, the garbagemen are within their rights.
It's hard not to sympathize with Nancy Bowen. She hadn't been denied service for nearly a year. Why did the garbagemen wait so long to lower the boom?
But it's hard to see how the county can enforce the no-diaper ordinance more even-handedly. It isn't possible to have garbagemen inspect every can for used diapers every time they empty it. Meanwhile, garbagemen certainly have the right to protect themselves from disease.
Nancy Bowen is probably spraying B.J.'s used diapers with air freshener right this minute. Or calling a cloth diaper service. As imperfect or inconvenient as either step may be, I can't think of a better one under the circumstances.