Seattle, a city that just approved a $15-per-hour minimum wage, has applied its progressive-leaning ideals to take on another civic issue: food waste. Starting this year, it will mark garbage cans with bright-red tags—Scarlet Letter-style—when people throw away food; in July, the city will then levy fines for the same offense.
Washington State’s largest city passed the ordinance in September 2014 in order to combat greenhouse gas emissions and food waste. Currently, the city estimates that it unloads around 100,000 tons of unwanted food in a landfill in eastern Oregon every year. Its goal is to begin diverting about 38,000 tons of that waste towards composting efforts—which Seattle has supported by giving each household in the city specialized tubs to fill. It then encourages residents to compost their own trash; those who don’t want the extra work can leave the tubs curbside to be picked up for a fee.
The fines are what’s most notable here. Although North American cities like Vancouver and San Francisco encourage composting, they don’t actually issue penalties for those guilty of trashing food. Seattle will be the first to tie fines to waste. Seattle’s official government website explains how the city will dole out the fine:
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.
Will this actually work? If you believe Seattle’s website, public opinion on the initiative is a nearly overwhelming yes: 74% of Seattle residents support the ordinance, while only 11% don’t. However, a NPR article quotes a Seattle waste contractor named Rodney Watkins on what he’s already seen after the law’s January 1 implementation. It’s not positive:
Watkins doesn’t have to comb through the trash—the forbidden items are plain to see.
“You can see all the oranges and coffee grounds,” he says, raising one lid. “All that makes great compost. You can put that in your compost bin and buy it back next year in a bag and put it in your garden.”
Perhaps garbage-shamed citizens will reduce that number before July. If it doesn’t, looks like Seattle will get to enjoy the additional (probably minuscule) revenues until residents’ habits change.