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The city’s ban on the disposal of food scraps and other compostables with garbage is met with a lawsuit.
In a lawsuit filed against the city of Seattle on Thursday, a group of residents is arguing that their privacy rights are being violated under a recently launched initiative that calls for garbage collectors to check people’s trash cans for items such as food scraps and recyclables.
City rules that went into effect in January in Seattle prohibit residents and businesses from disposing of food scraps and compostable paper in their garbage. Since then, the city’s two contracted garbage haulers have been issuing warning tags if food and yard waste, or recyclables, appear to make up more than 10 percent of the contents in a customer’s trash bin.
“A person has a legitimate expectation that the contents of his or her garbage cans will remain private and free from government inspection when placed curbside for collection,” the complaint states.
The Pacific Legal Foundation filed the suit in King County Superior Court on behalf of seven residents, and one woman who lived in Seattle until March.
According to the complaint, the city provided training for garbage collectors that included instructions to inspect residential trash bins “by moving bags, to open bags that are not securely tied, to look into the contents of translucent or transparent bags, and to exploit tears in sealed opaque bags to inspect their contents.”
This is problematic, the suit argues, because the waste haulers are “agents of the city,” and if a government looks through a person’s trash without a warrant, it amounts to a privacy rights violation based on the Washington State Constitution and state Supreme Court precedent.
“Social engineering of this sort leads to unnecessary and unwelcome government intrusion,” plaintiff Mark Elster said in a statement. “Seattle’s garbage recycling program may seem well-meaning, and the inconveniences to the public might seem trivial, but there’s nothing harmless about the city attempting to coerce everyone through a program of official prying.”
In the first five months of 2015, the waste haulers affixed about 10,000 of the warning tags to trash cans, according to Seattle Public Utilities. That figure amounted to less than 1 percent of the roughly 3.7 million garbage pickups completed during that time.
Violators of the composting rules were supposed to face fines beginning on July 1, which were set at $1 for single family households, and $50 for businesses and multi-family properties. But Mayor Ed Murray suspended the penalties in April. In doing so, the mayor cited the success of the initiative, and the need for further education efforts about the new requirements.
In addition to raising privacy concerns, the lawsuit also takes issue with the fines.
The plaintiffs contend that because the ordinance authorizing the penalties does not provide a clear way for them to be challenged, it is a violation of due process, as guaranteed by the state constitution.
“At minimum, due process requires that the government provide an individual with notice of the alleged violation and a meaningful opportunity to contest the government’s allegations before the government can deprive the person of his or her rights in life, liberty, or property,” the complaint states.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, whose attorneys filed the suit for the residents, describes its mission as litigating “for limited government, property rights, free enterprise, and a balanced approach to environmental regulations.”
The suit names a number of other defendants along with the city. They include Seattle Public Utilities, which is the agency that oversees solid waste issues in the city, as well as the utilities’ director, Ray Hoffman, and Mayor Murray, who are both named in their official capacities.
As of Friday morning, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office did not have any comment on the lawsuit, according to a spokesperson. The case is Bonesteel v. City of Seattle.