What do a bureaucrat, an identity thief, and a street bum have in common? They all want to pick through your rubbish. Seattle recently announced that it will fine individuals and businesses whenever compostable material accounts for over ten percent of their waste. Trash collectors will inspect bins and ticket folks who throw out too much food. The City will provide no means of challenging these citations.
Government’s interest in garbage is nothing new. Cities across the country enforce recycling requirements, and police often hunt through trash for contraband. However, this food waste rule imposes a whole new brand of rubbish inspection. A trash collector can see a big cardboard box without poking around, but only a detailed search will reveal whether more than ten percent of the garbage is compostable foodstuffs. Because the City will need to hire a bigger army of collectors to do this snooping, Seattle citizens will no doubt have to shoulder the costs.
The bigger concern, however, is constitutional. Privacy, autonomy, and due process are the real victims of Seattle’s rubbish rule. The Washington Supreme Court has said that individuals have a privacy interest in the stuff they throw away. Yet trash collectors can only scrutinize your scraps by sifting through your garbage. This intrusion should give anyone pause, regardless of your feelings about rotten food.
The ordinance also prevents anyone from protesting a ticket from the garbage man. The power to challenge government action is essential to liberty. The City’s reason for denying citizens their due process rights is practical: if anyone could challenge a citation, the City would have to preserve each individual’s trash as the sole evidence of the violation. Practical reality, however, does not mean that the City can ignore the fundamental right of due process; it just means the City should trash the ordinance.