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What are the legal consequences to me if I, as a San Francisco resident, fail to throw a given recyclable item in the blue (recycle) bin, and instead throw it in the black (landfill) bin? Will there be consequences for too little trash in the blue bin, or too much recyclable trash in black bin, or both? How will the city determine whether a potentially recyclable item is actually clean enough to go in the blue bin, and what opportunity would I have to make my case that it's too dirty?

Note: I am not interested in discussing the merits of recycling, such environmental or financial impacts. The question is purely about the legal aspect.


Some context as asked for in comments:

While in most of CA it is mandatory for businesses to recycle, in San Francisco city it is actually mandatory for ordinary residents in their homes as well.

  • San Francisco Department of the Environment: "San Francisco’s Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance requires San Francisco residents and businesses to properly separate recyclables and compostables and keep them out of the landfill."
  • Recology, which is apparently the company handling the waste: "San Francisco’s Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance requires San Francisco residents and businesses to properly separate recyclables and compostables and keep them out of the landfill."
  • Wikipedia article on Ordinance No. 100-09: "In the event of "egregious" cases of noncompliance, or failure to separate recyclables, compostables, and trash, fines up to $100 for single-family homes and up to $1000 for large businesses are issued."

Now, if the government of SF decided in their infinite wisdom that Recycling Is Good, I am not one to second guess the thoughts of heads smarter than mine. I'm happy to recycle when possible even if not required. However, this requirement seems to complicate things a bit.

For the unfamiliar, recycling is actually a complex business. Typically US municipalities will hire a company to collect recyclable waste, group it in batches, and then negotiate with other companies (usually in China) who take the batches of recyclable material and actually recycle it. These companies have strict requirements on the quality of the waste, for example a batch must not include too much non-recyclable material. This obviously applies to things like food residue in recyclable containers (eg. bits of yogurt or milk in plastic cups and bottles). Because of this, it is actually necessary to recycle thoroughly cleaned objects, and not recycle them if they cannot be cleaned (for example, grease stained pizza boxes are not recyclable, although in this case they can be composted). Putting dirty recyclables in the blue bin might not only fail to result in the recycling of that item, but a few dirty items may "contaminate" the whole batch (the Chinese recyclers refuse a batch with too many dirty items in it). What happens with the refused items? They go to the landfill. Thus, by being overzealous and attempting to recycle too aggressively, it is possible to actually create a significant net harm on the environment.

So recycling or not is not as simple a decision as "Is it plastic, paper or glass?" It depends also on how clean the item in question is. If recycling is mandatory, even a resident attempting to comply will run into several pitfalls:

  • How much cleaning of a recyclable waste item is enough for it to go in the blue bin? What if the city deems it not sufficiently clean, and therefore landfill-bound, and therefore unlawfully disposed in the blue bin (rather than black)?
  • How much dirtiness is too dirty? If an otherwise recyclable item is disposed in the black bin, because it is not possible to clean it to a sufficient extent, will the city ever decide that it can in fact possibly be cleaned and should have been in the blue bin instead?
  • When the city decides that you are non-compliant, but you disagree, what is the process?
  • What are the guidelines for judging what is actually eligible for recycling and what is not?
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    I think your starting point should be the SF Environment Code Chapter 19, sections 1903 (mandatory source separation) and 1908 (enforcement). Determining the relevant "administrative penalties" may require chasing down more cross-references than I have patience for right now. – Nate Eldredge Aug 4 at 3:38
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    @Nij Recyclable items must be sufficiently clean to be recycled, otherwise they are ineligible to be recycled. – Consis Aug 4 at 8:39
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    Repeating the phrase doesn't answer a question about its definition. – Nij Aug 4 at 10:04
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    @Nij I think the issue here is that lots of folks assume that pizza boxes are recyclable. They aren't recyclable in any jurisdiction, apart from the top part, perhaps. However, I agree that this question is a bit on the vague part, especially if the OP doesn't actually reference any specific laws, yet the question is worded in such a way that makes explicit references to some such laws. – cnst Aug 5 at 18:34
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    @Consis please add more context to the question. What makes you think you'll ever have to prove that the item was too dirty for the bin? Any specific laws or regulations, or website interpretations, you're concerned about? – cnst Aug 5 at 18:35

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