Charlotte inspecting some homeowner recycling bins. Here’s why


A bale of recyclables is a jumble of different items: paper, plastic and aluminum.

A bale of recyclables is a jumble of different items: paper, plastic and aluminum.

Charlotte is sending its sanitation workers to look through and tag curbside recycling carts at 3,000 homes identified as the worst for tossing the wrong stuff into the bins, a city official said Friday.

The pilot program that began Monday is not to snoop on what’s inside the bins but to educate people on what belongs in them and what doesn’t, project coordinator Beverlee Sanders told The Charlotte Observer.

“We will protect the citizens’ privacy,” she said.

The city targeted homes found to have the “most highly contaminated” bins, according to Sanders. “This is not a random program,” she said.

“Congratulations!” a letter mailed to the 3,000 homes starts. “Your home has been chosen to be a part of the City of Charlotte Recycling Tagging Program, an education program that will help improve recycling in our community!”

A “cart tagging team” is putting green tags on carts that contain only items eligible for recycling and red tags on carts found with non-eligible items, according to the single-page mailing.

“The green tag will symbolize a job well done,” according to the letter. “The red tag will symbolize that the cart contains multiple contaminants and additional recycling education is needed.”

The tagging team will inspect the cart biweekly, according to the letter, with “team members” wearing shirts with the city of Charlotte logo.

Only carts placed curbside will be inspected, according to Sanders. That’s because the contents of recycling carts become the city’s once a resident places them out for collection, she said.

The stuff you place out for collection “is being abandoned and becomes property of the city and its agents, but we completely understand the (privacy) concern,” Sanders said.

The program started Monday and ends May 1, 2020, with no cart tagging in January, according to the Solid Waste Services letter.

The letter describes the effort as “an education program that will help improve recycling in our community.”

Some Charlotte residents routinely include inappropriate items in their bins, from plastic bags to food waste. It costs twice as much to recycle a ton of materials as to dump it in a landfill, the Observer has reported. That cost goes up when contaminated items are included in the recycle bins.

The city’s letter doesn’t address potential privacy concerns over someone scouring the stuff in your cart. That’s not the intent of the program, Sanders told the Observer.

The letter also doesn’t say if a resident can opt out of the program, who employs the people inspecting the carts and whether they’ve undergone background checks.

The employees, like all other city employees, underwent background checks as part of their hiring, Sanders said.

Before the city responded to those questions from the Observer Friday, City Council member Ed Driggs said: “I would have the same questions you are raising” when the paper called him.

Driggs said he didn’t know about the pilot program and doesn’t think it’s something that would have had to come before the council to approve before Solid Waste Services started it.

How the courts looks at the government looking at trash

Law experts widely agree that once your trash or recycling has been placed on the curb, away from your home and ready for pick-up, the waste is likely considered abandoned property. The issue has long been debated due to law enforcement’s use of “trash pulls,” where investigators might examine a potential suspect’s bin at the curb.

A U.S. Supreme Court precedent on the issue was set in 1988 in California v. Greenwood, which arose from a police case where the investigator’s search of a suspect’s trash revealed illegal drug use.

The man whose trash in the Greenwood case was searched argued police had violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The state and the police department argued the man’s trash was fair game and he had no right to expect privacy over the trashed items once his trash bin was set out for pick up.

In the majority opinion, written by Justice Byron White, the court ruled: “It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.”

Some communities already tag curbside bins

Some U.S. cities and towns already tag contaminated recycling — and penalize offending homeowners.

The town of Aberdeen, N.C., tags contaminated bins, while El Paso, Texas, goes as far as to confiscate your bin, ending your chance to recycle again until you take a class or pay a fee.

Neighborhoods in Elgin, Ill., outside of Chicago, have a similar program, as does Providence, R.I. In Rhode Island, recycling is mandatory, so it’s extra important.

In Seattle, meanwhile, a red tag means something different entirely — there, it’s illegal to put food in your curbside trash bin, and composting is mandatory.

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Joe Marusak has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1989 covering the people, municipalities and major news events of the region, and was a news bureau editor for the paper. He currently reports on breaking news.

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