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.