Thursday, May 5, 2016

Seattle food waste rule violates privacy, court rules

By Ken McEntee
Composting News

Snooping through residents’ garbage to find violations of Seattle’s food waste disposal ban violates residents’ rights to privacy, as protected by the Washington state constitution, a King County Superior Court judge ruled this month. Judge Beth M. Andrus granted summary judgement to plaintiffs in Bonesteel v. City of Seattle and issued an injunction against enforcement of unconstitutional portions of the city’s food waste disposal ban.

The ruling does not mean that Seattle’s ban on the disposal food waste and compostable paper in residential garbage itself is unlawful, and the plaintiffs did not challenge the city’s right to ban food waste from trash collections.

“The ruling that the city’s ban on recyclables and food waste in the trash is lawful helps Seattle meet its recycling goals,” said Andy Ryan, media relations coordinator for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). “The ruling requires that we ensure the way trash is collected maintains our customers’ privacy. We will study the ruling and determine what changes we need to make in the program and the city ordinance.”
Bonesteel v. City of Seattle is a civil rights lawsuit filed in July 2015 on behalf of a number of Seattle residents who say their rights were violated by the inspection provisions of the food waste ordinance.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for common sense and constitutional rights,” said Ethan Blevins, staff attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a non-profit public interest legal organization that represented the residents at no charge. “A clear message has been sent to Seattle public officials: Recycling and other environmental initiatives can’t be pursued in a way that treats people’s freedoms as disposable. Seattle can’t place its composting goals over the privacy rights of its residents. By authorizing garbage collectors to pry through people’s garbage without a warrant, the city has promoted a policy of massive and persistent snooping. That’s not just wrong as a matter of policy, as the judge has correctly ruled, it is wrong as a matter of law.”

At issue was Seattle Ordinance No. 124582, which prohibits residents from throwing food and compostable paper in the trash. The food waste ban requires garbage collectors to monitor the contents of garbage cans through visual inspection and to report residents to Seattle Public Utilities when significant amounts of a can’s contents (more than 10 percent) are made up of recyclables or food waste.  The law applies to single-family homes, apartments and commercial properties.

As invoked by the lawsuit, PLF said, the ordinance violates the right to privacy.  Article I, section 7, of the Washington Constitution provides that “no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”  The provision offers more expansive protection than the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Washington courts “jealously guard” the right to privacy, holding that people have a reasonable expectation that the contents of their garbage cans will remain private, and that the government may not search rubbish bins without a warrant, PLF said.

SPU inspectors or contractors inspected residents’ trash containers to visually determine whether they exceeded 10 percent food waste. If they did, a sticker indicating the violation was placed on the container and a $1 fine was levied. Seattle contracts with Waste Management and Recology/CleanScapes to collect trash. Compostables are collected by Lenz Enterprises and PacificClean of Washington.

According to the suit, collectors tagged about 500 trash cans per week when the program started in early 2015. The rate of tagged cans dropped to about 40 per week by late 2015.

Ryan said the city is “pleased that the court’s ruling recognizes the city's ability to regulate what goes into trash cans to address conservation and safety needs. Plain view monitoring for dangerous items is vital to protecting worker and public safety. This was the most important issue at stake in this case.”

Also see Seattle sued for trashing privacy rights.

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