The Private Life of Trash


Seattle used to be best known for grunge, now it may be just as well known for garbage. Washington Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus has ruled that the good citizens of Seattle have a right to privacy in their refuse. 

Trying to reach high recycling and composting standards to help in the global warming fight, the city passed an ordinance to allow trash collectors to paw around trash cans in an effort to identify non-green scofflaws whose bins had more than 10 percent content that should have been recycled or composted.

Too many kale tailings, uneaten soy burgers and vegan beer bottles in the trash and the collectors could slap a sticker on the can designating the contents as “Not Trash.” Eventually the plan was to charge folks $1 if they didn’t compost and recycle enough.

But a group of homeowners challenged the ordinance as an invasion of privacy—a case of government overreach. The court agreed. 

The Washington constitution includes broad rights against invasion of privacy and that means folks have a right to privacy in their trash even if it is thrown out as trash, in a trash can and put out to be collected as trash. Maybe only Oscar the Grouch could love trash more. Or the Trashmen, the garage band icons that brought us "Surfing Bird."

Trash collectors can still observe what’s in a trash can in plain sight to identify potential hazards to themselves, such as medical waste or a full cup of Starbuck’s most caloric drink menu offering, the white chocolate mocha, at more than 400 calories a pop.

Want to hear more? I recently discussed the Seattle garbage ordinance and the court’s ruling on Bloomberg Law Radio Bloomberg Law Radio.

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