In 1988 the Supreme Court said it was okay that “animals, children, scavengers, snoops…” and the police have access to your garbage.
Placed outside for pickup, your garbage is not private. The majority opinion indicated garbage was not protected by the Fourth Amendment because most of us do not expect it to be private. Disagreeing, the dissent said the Court should safeguard the private parts of our lives that we discard.
Where are we going? To the cost and benefit of recycling regulation.
In the 1988 case, when the police suspected narcotics trafficking, they went to the person’s garbage to prove it. Although they were right, the defendant claimed his right to privacy.
Fast forward to another garbage bag that is currently the target of a privacy case in Seattle. Seattle has environmental regulation that mandates accurate sorting. With one bin for trash and the other for recyclables, residents are supposed to observe the difference. If more than 10 percent of a bin has the wrong stuff, you first get a red tag and then a fine.
Imagine the details. Sort of like a trash police, sanitation people have to size up our garbage to decide whether the 10 percent rule has been violated. They might even have to multiply the radius and height of the can by Pi and then divide by 10.
Protest signs from the new law’s opponents:
Although the 1988 Supreme Court decision seems to support the new regulation, actually the courts do not agree. In 1990, the highest court in the state of Washington decided law enforcement officers did need a warrant to search the garbage.
The new lawsuit was just filed. So we shall see.
Our Bottom Line: Cost and Benefit
With regulation, perhaps we should always ask if we not only feel good but also do good. And that takes us to cost and benefit.
In dollars, time, privacy, and respect for the law and our environment, the Seattle recycling mandate has a cost and a benefit. Including baffling sorting decisions and, as we noted in an earlier post, a rising recycling dollar cost, recycling policy can involve more time and money than people expect. On the other hand, we should not minimize the environmental benefit and the social norm that accompanies it.
I guess we wind up with a mixed (garbage) bag of negative and positive externalities.