Hit & Run

King County, Washington, Caught Digging Through Residents' Trash

Officials' goal is to encourage people to put their food waste in the compost bin.


Oscar the Grouch
bixentro / flickr

A natural consequence of most Thanksgiving feasts is an incredible amount of leftover food, some of which—from congealed gravy to godawful ambrosia—is promptly tossed in the trash.

Usually, this throwing away of leftover holiday vittles warrants little attention from anyone. Not so in King County, Washington, however, where government officials have been found rummaging through residents' garbage in search of food waste.

On Monday, Q13—the local Fox affiliate—reported that a King County woman named Sandi England had come across men in an unmarked rental Penske truck digging through her garbage cans at 5:30 a.m. Suspecting identity thieves, she confronted the men only to be told they were working for the county on a study of residents' composting habits.

A local radio program called the Dori Monson Show reported that another woman had caught men with flashlights cataloging her household's refuse in the middle of the night as well.

This state-sanctioned dumpster diving is apparently all part of an 18-month-long Residential Cart Tagging Project. Started in November of last year, the study aims to get a more accurate picture of how much food waste is going into people's trash cans.

The idea is to encourage more of that waste to go into "yard waste" carts instead, says Jeff Gaisford, a recycling and environmental services manager with King County Solid Waste. According to Gaisford, his department has been leaving informational tags on the trash cans of its involuntary study participants reminding them of proper food waste disposal practices. The follow-up "surveys" are intended to measure whether these tags are working to encourage people to put said waste in the right bins.

People weren't informed about the unsolicited site visits, he added, because King County does not want them to change their behavior in response to being part of the study.

As weird, creepy, and likely pointless as all this is, it's actually not the first time the area has experienced curb-side privacy violations.

The city of Seattle—which sits in King County—was rebuked earlier this year when a judge found that a similar program to measure how much recyclable material was being thrown in the trash was unconstitutional. That ruling rested on the fact that Seattle was looking to level fines on those who failed to properly sort their recyclable high-density polyethylene from their non-recyclable polypropylene. As the county is not looking to hand out fines to callous food wasters, its program probably won't suffer a similar fate.

Fines or no, though, the Residential Cart Tagging Project has rankled more than a few people. Drew Barth of the Dori Monson Show voiced some rather libertarian sentiments, for example, when he called the whole thing "idiotic" and a waste of taxpayer money. "I should have the freedom to throw away whatever I want," he said.