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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mandatory Recycling Hasn't Led to Fascism In Other Locales -- But San Francisco's Proposed Fines are 10 Times Higher Than Elsewhere

Posted By on Tue, Jun 9, 2009 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge It hasn't gotten quite to this point yet...
  • It hasn't gotten quite to this point yet...
There's no getting around it -- the notion of a government employee or contractor inspecting one's refuse and approving or disapproving its composition is creepy, regardless of how altruistic the goal of waste reduction. You cannot argue about this.

That being said, Big Brother has not taken over the Departments of Sanitation in the several cities that preceded San Francisco in adopting mandatory recycling and composting (we're assuming this one is going to pass at today's Board of Supervisors meeting -- that's what happens when legislation is sponsored by Gavin Newsom and Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi).

Despite the aforementioned creepiness, proponents of the bill have a number of good arguments in their bins. For one, you're not allowed to randomly toss trash anywhere, and this is ostensibly an extension of that. Secondly, you are already required to separate hazardous materials out of your trash. Yet a couple of things worry us: San Francisco has a rich history of adopting programs that worked well elsewhere and making an absolute pig's breakfast of them over here. Also, glancing at the six-year-old mandatory recycling program in ideologically similar Seattle, one could argue that San Francisco's proposed penalties are a bit draconian.

In San Francisco, for example, the possible fine for any residential or commercial property that generates less than a cubic yard of refuse per week starts at $100. Reading between the lines, this is a penalty aimed at single-family dwellings. In Seattle, however, a lazy or clueless family wouldn't be fined. Instead, the sanitation workers handling the refuse bins would simply decline to pick them up and leave them, tagged, in front of the offender's home. This Scarlet Letter-like punishment has led to high compliance in the Pacific Northwest -- though it hasn't filled city coffers.

Like San Francisco, however, Seattle reserves the right to fine non-compliant multi-family dwellings and commercial buildings. San Francisco's ordinance -- which you can read in its entirety here -- is vague on how fines will be meted out regarding multi-family units. It wouldn't make sense to ding a landlord if a couple of tenants obstinately refuse to sort their refuse -- but this could well happen. In the meantime, no one will be fined until July of 2011, when the director of the Department of the Environment is slated to figure out just what everyone's responsibilities are. Since most San Franciscans are renters in such units, this is a very important detail -- and it hasn't been worked out yet. Hmmm.

And since the proposed fine is $500 -- and, in recalcitraint situations, liens on the building -- it could become a ticklish matter. In Seattle, though, the fine is a mere $50 -- and even this has spurred increased recycling. According to Brett Stav, the senior planning and development specialist for Seattle Public Utilities, the city hasn't used these fines as a cash cow: Last year only 18 of the more than 6,000 apartment buildings were fined. It will be interesting to see if San Francisco applies a similarly light touch.

As for what would happen if a trash inspector found drug paraphernalia or any other incriminating material in one's garbage, triggering a constitutionally questionable investigation, Stav was at a loss. Most dumpsters, he says, are in the public domain, and inspectors do not rip open bags. Nothing like this has ever happened in Seattle -- though trash inspectors have discovered the occasional dead body.

The Seattle official was optimistic San Franciscans would rise to this challenge -- "It's not as if people in San Francisco don't understand what recycling means.

"We found what was holding us back from meeting our environmental goals were a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. We found having mandatory recycling for the most part has served us as a great educational tool. And that education is the stick, so to speak, instead of the carrot."

Incidentally, those bad apples and the carrot should be placed in the green composting bin. Failure to do so could cost you $100 to $500.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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