Shame Now, Fines Later: Seattle Bans Food in Garbage Cans

Violators get a bright-red warning on their bins, but they’ll have to pay starting in July.

(Photo: Aaron Eakin/Getty Images)

Jan 8, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

In Seattle, moldy pastries, banana peels, and dinner leftovers aren’t garbage. Neither are paper towels and pizza boxes.

The first day of 2015 marked the enactment of an ordinance banning Seattle residents from tossing food and food-contaminated compostable paper in trash cans. Starting July, a $1 fine will be tacked onto a residential home’s garbage bill if a trash collector sees that a bin is at least 10 percent filled with food. For now, bins are marked with a red tag notifying owners of their dirty deed.

Residents have been phoning in since the law took effect, “mostly with general questions about how to compost or how to sign up for service,” said Brett Stav, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities.

Right now, 5 percent of residents compost in their backyards. The rest pay a company that collects residential food and yard waste for the city to do the dirty work. The requirement to compost or sign up for collection has been in place since 2009, but only this year will the city start fining those caught with food in their garbage bins.

Some people aren’t happy.

“So what’s next, you can’t flush your toilet paper after you’ve used it?” said one of many disgruntled commenters on a Seattle Times article about the newly enacted rule.

But many residents seem willing to comply. Stav said Seattle Public Utilities has only had to mark about 1 percent of trash bins with red tags. It’s not the first time the city has banned types of trash from going into the can, after all; Seattle prohibited tossing recyclables in 2005.

“There was an immediate effect on the amount businesses and residents diverted from the landfill over the course of the next several years. We expect this new law will have a similar effect,” Stav said, adding that it will help the city reach its goal of diverting 60 percent of waste from landfills by the end of 2015. Right now, Seattle recycles and composts 56.2 percent of its trash.

It may be more difficult for businesses to comply with the new rule. According to Stav, tenants don’t often see the bill or interact with enforcement.

“There can be a disconnect or lack of awareness of the consequences for not participating,” he said.

There’s a good chance it could work. A recent survey cited by Seattle.gov found that 74 percent of residents support the recent enactment of the food waste ban. Recology CleanScapes, a waste contractor for the city, has so far received positive feedback.

“The new program has generated a lot of interest among residents and business,” said spokesperson Kevin Kelly. “By the time fines begin in July, we think customers will have been thoroughly educated about the requirements. Separating food waste from garbage will become a habit.”

“The community understands the value of this program and has been supportive during the implementation,” he added. “They understand that there is a better use for these resources.”