Too lazy to separate your trash? Too bad if you're living in Seattle.
Seattle began enforcing this month a new law, which aims to curb the amount of food sent to landfills. As of January 1, residents of the city, including all commercial establishments, must have a composting service haul away their food waste, drive the waste to a processing site, or compost it themselves at home or on-site. The law applies not only to food but also any cardboard or paper with food on it.
For those unwilling to cooperate, there will be a price.
For now, the cost of defiance will come in the form of public shaming. Those who refuse to separate their garbage will find their bins tagged with a red sign for all to see. The hope is that the tags will help serve as both a warning as well as an incentive to make composting a habit. But come June, after a public education campaign lasting several months about the new rules, violators will begin facing fines—$1 per infraction for households; and $50 per breach by apartment buildings and businesses. This is the exact language:
Single-family properties whose garbage contains more than more than 10 percent recyclables or food waste by volume would receive a notice on their garbage container and a $1 fine would be levied on their bi-monthly garbage bill.
Multi-family and commercial properties whose garbage contains more than 10 percent recyclables or food waste by volume would receive a warning notice. Upon the third notice, the property would receive a $50 fine.
Seattle's new law is meant to help the city achieve its goal to recycle 60 percent of waste by the end of this year. Strict rules, which have banned recyclables from trash bins since 2005, have helped Seattle come within striking distance of that promise—the city currently recycles approximately 56 percent of its waste. But progress toward that goal appears to have stalled; the percentage has barely increased in recent years, and even fell in residential homes between 2012 and 2013, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Food waste has become a growing problem in cities across the United States—the country throws out more food than plastic, paper, metal, or glass. Seattle alone sends some 100,000 tons of food to wither away in landfills that are as far as 300 miles away, according to the city. And that's despite some of country's most stringent recycling laws, some of which require residential properties and multi-family buildings to offer composting collection service. People, it seems, are less willing to sort out their food scraps than the government had hoped. Even now, with the new compost law in effect, residents have still been slow to adapt.
"Right now, I'm tagging probably every fifth can," Rodney Watkins, a waste contractor in Seattle, told NPR on Monday. "I don't know if that's just the holidays, or the fact that I'm actually paying a lot more attention."
The city is hopeful that the prevalence of tickets is merely a result of poor awareness about the new law. By Seattle's own estimate, the new requirements will divert as much as 38,000 tons of food waste away from landfills.
"Compostables are about 30 percent of what is still in the garbage and they are the largest target we have to help us reach our goals," Timothy Croll, solid waste director of the Seattle Public utilities commission, told CNN in September.
Food waste is both an economic and environmental burden. Transporting the waste, especially for distances as far as Seattle does, is costly. So too is allowing it to sit out in the open, where it produces methane, one of the most harmful greenhouses gases, as it rots. The second largest component of landfills in the United States is organic waste, and landfills are the single largest source of methane gas.
Seattle's new law is the first in the country that fines people for refusing to properly sort their garbage. Other cities, including Portland, San Francisco, and New York City, have passed other, less stringent food waste requirement laws.