PhotoEight Seattle residents, backed by the Pacific Legal Foundation, have jointly filed suit against the city, saying that “Seattle is violating the Washington Constitution’s protections for privacy and due process rights by requiring garbage collectors to snoop through people’s garbage, as part of a new ban on throwing food and food waste into the trash,” according to a statement posted by the PLF.

New composting rule

Last September, Seattle's city council voted in favor of a mandatory composting ordinance requiring residents to separate compostable (read: biodegradable) garbage from other kinds.

The Seattle Times noted that the then-new rules say that “[garbage] collectors can take a cursory look each time they dump trash into a garbage truck. If they see compostable items make up 10 percent or more of the trash, they’ll enter the violation into a computer system their trucks already carry, and will leave a ticket on the garbage bin that says to expect a $1 fine on the next garbage bill.”

The $1 fine applies to residents of single-family homes. Businesses and apartment buildings will be subject to the same 10-percent limit on biodegradable matter, but will be allowed two warnings before any fine is levied. However, their fines will be considerably higher: $50 for a third violation.

The lawsuit filed by Pacific Legal says that “The Ordinance directs garbage collectors and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) inspectors to search both residential and business garbage cans, without suspicion or a warrant, in order to estimate whether compostable materials or recyclables make up a 'significant amount' of a garbage can’s contents.”

No defense

Furthermore, there's no way for anyone accused of breaking the 10% limit to challenge it or defend themselves: “The Ordinance offers no avenue for residents to contest a supposed infraction, contrary to the guarantee of due process in Article I, Section 3, of the Washington State Constitution.”

Washington State's constitution actually grants its residents greater privacy rights over their garbage than the U.S. constitution (as interpreted by the Supreme Court) does to most American citizens. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police do not need a warrant to search through people's trash bags or refuse containers once those containers have been placed outside the home for pickup. But two years later, the Washington Supreme Court ruled police in that state must adhere to a stricter standard, and obtain a warrant before searching through someone's garbage.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings are the law of the land and take precedence over any and all lower court rulings and laws enacted by local jurisdictions. However, while states cannot take away individual rights guaranteed by the Supreme Court, they can add to those rights where their own residents are concerned.

Therefore, when the U.S. Supreme Court says “Cops in America can search people's garbage without a warrant,” individual states can say “Not in our jurisdiction, they can't.”

Privacy concerns

Hence the basis of the Pacific Legal Foundation's lawsuit, filed on behalf of Richard Bonesteel and seven other plaintiffs: it violates state constitutional guarantees of privacy protection as well as due process (since there's no way residents or businesses can defend themselves against accusations of wrongdoing). The lawsuit seeks “a permanent injunction and a declaration that the snooping law is void and unenforceable because it flouts core privacy and due process guarantees,” according to the PLF.

Seattle Public Utilities, one of the defendants in the suit, said in a statement that “SPU believes the instructions we've given to our collectors upholds the Washington State Constitution and civil liberties. There is no intention of opening trash bags. Containers are only tagged if the contamination is clearly visible. The guidelines state: if you can't see, don't report it and don't tag it.”

However, PLF attorney Brian Hodges disputes the utility's claim: “The city may try to put a happy face on the program, with assurances that it’s not nosy and meddlesome, but the internal documents tell another story. Training documents call for ‘zero tolerance’ and show garbage collectors removing bags to inspect a garbage can, peering into translucent bags, and opening torn or untied bags. In short, this program calls for massive and persistent snooping on the people of Seattle. This is not just objectionable as a matter of policy, it is a flagrant assault on people’s constitutional rights.”

For the sake of argument, however, let's assume that Hodges and the PLF are mistaken and Seattle Public Utilities is completely accurate, at least regarding SPU's specific claim that “There is no intention of opening trash bags. Containers are only tagged if the contamination is clearly visible.”

That doesn't necessarily contradict Hodges' claim that “Training documents … show garbage collectors removing bags to inspect a garbage can” (because, obviously, the garbage collectors have to remove bags from their cans anyway, as part of their ordinary routine), and SPU's stated “clearly visible” standard doesn't necessarily contradict Hodges' claim that garbage collectors peer into translucent bags.

But even if you take SPU's assertion at face value — compostable items inside trash bags won't be counted toward that 10% compost limit, only items outside trash bags (but, presumably, still inside the larger garbage can or bin) — that still leaves a serious problem, especially in situations where the accused have no means to protest the charges or defend against them: how can the garbage collectors know those illicit compostables actually belong to the resident in question? Unless residents and businesses stand guard over their garbage, it would be easy for any random passerby (or a spiteful neighbor) to raise the lid of an unattended garbage bin and toss in whatever they want.

Impractical calculations

Although the PLF's lawsuit focuses on the problems the composting ordinance causes Seattle residents, it's also worth mentioning the strain it must place on Seattle garbage collectors, whose jobs now require them to solve complex geometric algorithms in their heads (whilst hauling oft-heavy bags of oft-stinky garbage through oft-crappy weather) in order to determine whether the garbage-giver has committed a composting violation.

For example: to determine 10 percent of the volume of a cylindrical garbage can you must first calculate the volume of a cylinder using the formula V=πr2h (translation: the volume of a cylinder equals pi times the radius squared times the height of the cylinder). Once you have that number, round up and lop off the last digit, shift the decimal if necessary, and that'll give you 10 percent.

However, determining 10 percent of the volume of a rectangular garbage bin requires the formula for a right rectangular prism V=whl (volume equals width times height times length, then take 10 percent off that). Actually it's more complicated than this simple formula suggests, because few wheeled garbage bins actually are perfect right rectangular prisms; most of them taper a bit and get narrower at the bottom, to make room for the wheels on the outside of the bin. And of course, these equations all assume the ten-percent rule will be enforced by volume, rather than weight.

That said, if Seattle's ordinance stands as is it doesn't really matter whether you know the proper formula to calculate your compost or not, because if you're accused of violating the ordinance you have no means of challenging the claim anyway.

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