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There are many ways to encourage Americans to embrace sustainable living practices: Public awareness campaigns, free containers and incentives are common methods used to increase recycling, rainwater harvesting, and composting.

But the city of Seattle has is taking a new approach: shaming.

As of the start of the year, the city is issuing notices to homeowners and apartment complexes who place too much food waste into their trash containers.

According to the ordinance, these “red tags” are to be given out whenever a particular garbage can or bin contains more than ten percent of food waste. As you can see, they're visible to everyone in the neighborhood:

Image credit: Waste360.com

For the first six months of 2015, only warning notices for violations will be issued. But as of July 1, homeowners will be fined a dollar for each infraction (it will be $50 per offense for apartment complexes after two warnings are issued). These fines will appear on the customers' bimonthly garbage bills.

Even before fines are levied, the city seems to think that the 'shaming' component of these notices will help Seattle achieve its sustainable goals:

“I'm sure neighbors are going to see these on their other neighbors' cans,” says Rodney Watkins, a lead driver for Recology CleanScapes, a waste contractor for the city. He's on the front lines of enforcing these rules.

Even so, this initiative has some people asking pointed questions. For example:

  • How will city workers be able to identify violators of this ordinance? (Presumably by digging through trash containers.)
  • By what method are they determining whether food waste comprises more than 10% of the contents of the container? (Eyeballing? Estimation? Whether or not the inspecting individual likes the homeowner?)
  • In the future, will the city use this program to increase revenue by becoming more stringent in their determination of composting violators, as is sometimes done with other violations like speeding, jaywalking, or business licensing compliance?

And why is Seattle implementing what some might see as draconian laws to enforce sustainable living practices? Actually, that question can be answered:

Seattle's new law is meant to help the city achieve its goal to recycle 60 percent of waste by the end of this year.

This “goal” is a milestone on the city's self-imposed timeline to become a “zero-waste” community. Given that the current rate is 56% (and that the rate for single-family homes has slipped in recent years), the achievement of this goal is far from certain. What kinds of laws might the city consider if it doesn't reach the 60 percent threshold in 11 months?

The city has also stated that it wants to reach 70% of all waste being recycled or composted by 2022. How the city plans to reach that benchmark is unclear.

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