Editorial: Is Big Brother dressed in green? | March 12, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 12, 2010

Editorial: Is Big Brother dressed in green?

Palo Alto's proposed recycling ordinance that would have refuse-pickup crews watching for recyclable materials in people's garbage is a backwards approach

Palo Alto has the proud distinction of being one of the first communities to implement recycling just over 40 years ago.

But there's a huge difference between getting a large majority of residents to separate cans and bottles and paper and the proposal now circulating to try to push the recycling level higher in Palo Alto. The initial approach was to provide an opportunity for residents to recycle their household waste in a reasonably convenient manner.

There were serious skeptics, including then-City Manager George Morgan, who derided the notion that anyone would go to the trouble of sorting out their waste stream. He was as surprised as anyone when within months thousands of households were doing so. Other communities quickly followed suit, once it was demonstrated that the public was willing to take an extra step. Curbside-pickup of recycled materials followed in 1978, also a great success in terms of participation.

An earlier generation's effort was the widespread recycling of tin cans during World War II, also voluntary.

What was missing from those proud moments of history is the punitive component that is part of the city's current recycling proposal. Under the plan, there would be a full year of education before any punitive steps kicked in. Then refuse collectors would only check for "egregious" violators who put large amounts of recyclable materials in their black garbage bins, according to the city staff. And there would be several warnings before a "surcharge" was levied or, ultimately, there would be no garbage pickup from the offender. City staff points to other cities that have such ordinances and cite a low incidence of penalties being invoked.

But the overall plan raises serious issues of privacy, individual rights and inappropriate use of "police powers," especially when delegated to a private firm, GreenWaste, and its garbage collectors.

Practically, it raises the question: Why didn't anyone in charge realize that this would be a violation of privacy and rights?

And why didn't anyone realize that including such a provision would jeopardize the entire recycling effort, which falls under the broad mandate of "Zero Waste"? That term in itself is at best a fantasy and at worst a deception, as noted by a number of commentators in the Town Squire forum of the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Zero Waste is an impossible goal, even spread over more than a decade. And even if it were theoretically possible to reach zero, the cost in terms of dollars and staff time and impact on residents and businesses would be prohibitively high for each smaller-and-smaller increment achieved.

That is not to say that we as a community and society should not strive mightily to be efficient in terms of how we use resources, or how we respect the environment and take actions to mitigate global warming. Or that we should not lobby to require the food industry and its marketing arm to find less wasteful ways of packaging products — to avoid the need to recycle in the first place.

But for a city to come up with an onerous plan to spy on and punish violators of its recycling law, even after much education and repeated warnings, simply undermines both the city's credibility and the acceptability of the entire plan. Our elected and appointed officials should be protecting our privacy and individual rights of free choice, not looking for ways to exercise their police power in the name of a theoretical goal that itself is a sham.

If someone chooses not to recycle, that should be their right as a citizen, as irresponsible as that may be.

From a practical standpoint, even raising this plan in its present form has created a wave of concern and opposition that will be counterproductive to legitimate, well-meaning, urgent efforts to reduce our "carbon footprint" in the face of global warming. Locally, it threatens to be the genesis of a "green backlash."

The correct effort should be one of education, voluntary participation, perhaps some incentives in pricing and rewards, building on the proud community history of recycling that Palo Alto shares with its residents and businesses.

The enforcement facet of the recycling plan should instantly be buried as deep as possible in the city's landfill.


Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 12, 2010 at 7:20 am

The editorial states;

"Why didn't anyone in charge realize that this would be a violation of privacy and rights? "


"Our elected and appointed officials should be protecting our privacy and individual rights of free choice, not looking for ways to exercise their police power in the name of a theoretical goal that itself is a sham. "

The answer is that "climate change", "zero waste" "being green" and being an "environmental leader" trumps any concerns about loss of privacy. Our 'environmental leaders"know what is best for us--we should just follow along blindly like sheep.

The editor also points out that the term "zero waste" is at best a fantasy and at worst a deception. That is so true, but once again it is a feel good notion that our "environmental leaders" plan to shove down our throats whether we like it or not. remember they know what is best for us and we know who they are--present and former city council members with their heads in the clouds, wearing their green glasses, while ignoring the real problems facing our city.

Posted by garbage collectors, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 12, 2010 at 8:34 am

Garbage collectors should not be looking inside your garbage cans. Please issue them blindfolds so they cannot see what they are picking up. It is none of their business. I demand complete privacy for my garbage cans!

Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 12, 2010 at 9:33 am

I seriously doubt that the garbage collectors I see on my street, running and hustling to meet their schedule, will be diligently scrutinizing their loads.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 12, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Some places in England require you put your waste out in transparent bags so garbage warrens can determine whether you have properly sorted. perhaps we can replace our black bins with transparent ones?
Why does that building on Hamilton remind me of Faulty Towers?

Posted by Audi Commercial., a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 13, 2010 at 5:12 am

Remember the prophetic Audi commercial about Green Stalinists at the Super Bowl, and how it was trashed? You haven't seen it since, have you?

It was far too close to home..and people don't like to be reminded of that.

If you don't know what I am talking about, youtube Audi Superbowl 2010 Commercial. It is truly scary.

Posted by Former Brit, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2010 at 8:49 am

Walt says: "Some places in England require you put your waste out in transparent bags so garbage warrens can determine whether you have properly sorted." Rural areas of Britain only have garbage collection once a month - perhaps we should do that too!!

Posted by CHinCider, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 15, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Editor -

While I realize that an editoral is by definition an opinion, it would be nice if such opinions were at least founded in fact. Your editorial on this matter is so wrong on so many counts that it is difficult to know here to begin in formulating a response.

The proposed ordinance is just that - a preliminary concept now being developed and vetted through a public process. It stems from yet another series of public involvement activities dating back to 2006, with a resident and business comprised Zero Waste Task force, from whence this and other elements of the Zero Waste Plan were developed.
There has been 5 years of effort and countless public meeting behind this initiative. Any proposed enforcement action would be yet another 2 years down the road and subject to Council approval as to implementation only if specific targets were not met.

Yes, the term "Zero Waste" is somewhat optimistic. It was recognized a goal at the time it was chosen, much like "perfection" or "Zero Defects" - an unreachable goal, but one that should be continually strived for. The actual goal is stated in the details of the plan, for anyone who would bother to read it, as a 90% reduction from the base year of zero diversion from landfills. Palo Alto is currently at about 62%, with a near term target of 75% and a long range goal of 90% post 2021 - that being the so called "Zero Waste" attainment.

Your statement of this being a "violation of privacy and rights" is difficult to understand at best. First and foremost, there is no proposal for the garbage collectors to do anything more than is currently done in the collection process. They will merely observe as the container is emptied, as they do now. However, when the garbage is processed, plastic bags are opened and excess recylables are collected at that point further downstream in the process.

Privact in garbage is not a right, and it is a sad fallacy to so state and assume. Security experts caution that a leading cause of identity theft is from financial papers discarded in the trash. They should be shredded. Law enforcemwent agencies have been legally searching trash for years in criminal cases and successfully using documents recovered there to obtain convictions. The fact is that once you throw something away it does not belong to you anymore, and you have no rights about it.

This is a policy direction established over the past 5 years by the City Council with significant public input. If you disagree with the policy direction, advocacy of a change is certianly appropriate, but it would be nice if you had the facts correct in doing so.

Posted by Misplaced Priorities, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 16, 2010 at 12:26 am

Inspecting and tracking people's garbage takes time and money to do. In a time of budget crisis, this is how our limited funds should be spent? Not one penny for this, I say!

Posted by A Noun Ea Mus, a resident of Professorville
on Mar 16, 2010 at 5:10 am

Thank you CHincider for an attempt to take this conversation back to somewhere resembling Planet Earth!

Someone wants blinders put on the garbagemen so they can't look at their garbage!

It is a perfectly routine thing to glance at the garbage as it is first viewed, dumped, etc. You learn to do this after getting injured or scared by what is there---a rat scurries out and goes across your back on it's way to the street, you open a dumpster (not a can but concept applies) only to see a racoon family lurking in there, you push the trash down and don't notice the thrown away barbeque fork which just jabbed your forearm.......

I worked for years in my youth doing this and all the above happened.

I also helped a lawyer friend do jury research by both trash inspection and via finding out information from what my co-workers knew. The defendant was charged with murder for repeatedly stabbing her husband after abuse and death threats. Her attorney wanted jurors with a history of both alcohol (or other substances) and with combat military background. The reasons--there was to be a lot of drug and alcohol use coming out and he didn't want her judged on that. Also he wanted combat veterans whom might understand that a defense based on a life threat might not seem so overboard (he was stabbed 19 times).

But I digress.....your garbage out on the street isn't yours anymore.

The garbagemen can easily glance and tell if you're in general compliance with anything resembling recycling.

All this is doing is just a way to help push things towards more established recycling. A tiny stick at best (or worst if that is your perspective).

But don't let reality destroy the paranoid 1984 fantasies!

Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 16, 2010 at 8:02 am

"your garbage out on the street isn't yours anymore."

Okay - then if it's not ours, then it's not our responsibility. Therefore any enforcement cannot be done on garbage that's put out on the street.

See how ridiculous your assertion is?

Posted by pares, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 16, 2010 at 8:56 am

Toady, yes, I agree -- then we can't be fined if it's not really "ours" anymore. These eco-police are trying to have it both ways. And, hello, we'll need locks on our garbage to prevent neighbors from dumping in ours.

To say that since it's legal for law enforcement to examine our trash, and that this translates into the city can do same to every citizen, is a huge jump in invading our privacy. I'm fine with the rules now but do think it is a huge increase in policing powers if this passes. It is obnoxious that the city wants to examine my trash and punish me even though I've been very responsible in recycling.

Some of the posters above say, so what -- the trash collectors glance at our trash now. If the city implements this, then they (the garbage collectors) will have to be trained to certain rules, make records of the infractions, and retain evidence. And we taxpayers will have to pay for this. Worse still is the harassment we'll get from our "mistakes" or from others stuffing our garbage cans.

This adds another layer of big brother rules. Instead, put this to the citizens of Palo Alto and let us vote on this.

PA Weekly editorial, thank you, you are right!

Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 16, 2010 at 9:28 am

I'm glad the city has dumped this stupid and potentially very costly initiative.

Posted by RT, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 16, 2010 at 11:45 am

This is simple.
There should be no "policing" of garbage.
Simply keep increasing the rates for landfill garbage and the free market will take care of it. The increased fees can be used to sort out the recyclables from the landfill garbage.

Posted by Anonymous too, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm

to CHinCider -

Thank you for the facts that you presented. They were very informative. However, I have to say, just because an idea has been five years in gestation doesn't make it a good idea. And "public" involvement means what? How many members of the "public"? Five, six, fifteen, fifty? My experience with projects like this in Palo Alto is that the "public" that get involved are people with an agenda and not people with open minds. If a small group of the public agrees with something and there is a landslide of opposition to it from the rest of the public, then perhaps the idea should be revisited. Also, you say that there is no plan for the garbage collectors to do anything more than they do now - observe and collect. That clearly isn't correct as now they will also be expected to inform on anyone who doesn't meet some arbitrary standard of "green-ness". I feel this is the worst possible way to promote recycling. The city should come up with ways to encourage the positive behavior, not go all big brother on the bad behavior. It seems like a little thing to many people but it is just one more step to so many aspects of our lives being scrutinized which carries with it the accompanied loss of freedom.

Posted by Take Your Hands Off My God-Given Right to Pollute I Say!, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 16, 2010 at 10:42 pm

"If someone chooses not to recycle, that should be their right as a citizen, as irresponsible as that may be."

So you are now condoning a right to pollute.

Ya gotta love America!
Land of the afraid, home of the dumb!
(And Palin in 2012!)

Posted by Palin for me, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 17, 2010 at 5:33 am

You DO realize that the EPA has deemed CO2 a hazardous material and is trying to regulate it, don't you?

Web Link

And what is that noxious substance you exhale???

How do you suppose the EPA is going to deal with your exhalations? Force you to wear gas masks, perhaps, for "the greater good"? And you will be there trying to deride individual rights?

Yes, everyone has the right to be dumb, still, in America, and earn his own consequences of "dumb"..without retribution from the "government", something we should all be very grateful for. Unfortuntely for us, we have empowered our "government" to be dumb without any consequences to govt employees, only to us.

Wake up!

And yes, I love Palin.

Posted by A Noun Ea Mus, a resident of Professorville
on Mar 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Well I also breath in air that is 21% O2. If pollution was jacking the O2 levels up and causing similar problems to the rising O2 levels (fill a room with 100% O2 and smoke a joint for a demo of O2 as a hazardous material) then O2 production might also be considered a hazardous material.

I love Palin too. She is my favorite brunette version of a dumb blond.

Posted by Take Your Hands Off My God-Given Right to Pollute I Say!, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2010 at 11:07 pm

A perfectly valid point, A Noun Ea Mus:
Pure (100%) oxygen IS considered a hazardous material under DOT laws and for very good reason - it's highly flammable:
It caused the deaths of two astronauts on one of the early Apollo space missions.
It was the cause of the ValuJet aircraft crash years ago in Florida I believe when most, if not all, aboard were killed.

Another example of a common material being hazardous is fine dust - you get grain elevator explosions in the Midwest from time to time due to it and a bunch of workers were killed in a sugar processing plant a couple years back due to - yes - simply sugar dust in the air.

Finally, if you simply drink too much water it can be fatal - that did (or nearly did) happen in some stupid "shock jock" radio show stunt a couple of years back.

Bottom line: Lots of "natural stuff" is hazardous and/or polluting (you need go no futher than look in the toilet bowl after use to confirm that one!).

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