Friday, September 16, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Talkin' Trash...Tickets

by Peggy Robin

I’m full of righteous indignation for the people of Burleith. They’re being threatened with fines for something so palpably unfair that I think I need only quote one person caught in this situation for you to see the raw (and no doubt literally stinking) injustice of it all: 
“Just received a scary notice from DC Public Works that I will get a $75 fine because the trash can registered to me was found behind someone else's house. Fines will escalate to $1000 on the fourth violation  I had no idea I haven't been using my own can all these years. Wow.  If you read this [email addressed to the household now in possession of that trash can], please put can number DC-XXXXXX someplace not in the alley….I suspect many households on [this numbered block of Burleith] are getting these notices.”
--Message on the Burleith neighborhood email list
So DPW is issuing tickets not to the household currently in possession of a DC supercan registered to a different household, but to the household that is missing its own registered can!

There are so many problems here, I can hardly sort through them all; it's kind of like a messy pile of trash, in some ways. I feel a need to bring some numerical order to this chaos:

1. In my observation, DPW trash crew members routinely collect all supercans at one or two points per block, dump them, and then return the cans somewhat randomly to the houses along the block. Under those circumstances it’s not uncommon for residents in all innocence to pull back the wrong trash cans. They may assume they’re all interchangeable.

2. Unless DPW has previously notified homeowners that they are required to record the registration number of their own supercan, it’s wrong to fine them for failing to keep track of their own numbered cans.

3. DPW charges a $60 fee to replace a lost or broken trash can, so it doesn’t make economic sense to fine a homeowner $75 on top of that, for losing one.

4. If anyone is liable to be penalized, it should be the person who pulls back the wrong can, not the person who is missing one. (But I suppose it might be that the homeowner I quoted above fits into both categories, and the warning was actually for possessing someone else's can. So, having been prompted to return that can to its duly registered user, the homeowner is now short one can, and so has put out a message on the Burleith neighborhood listserv explaining the situation and pleading for the return of his/her own registered can. At least, I’m hoping that’s what’s really going on, because that, at least, would make a bit of sense – certainly more sense than issuing a fine to the poor person who comes home after work on trash day to find his own can missing, with no idea who’s got it, and a nasty note telling him it will cost him $75 for not being able to get it back.)

5. A thousand dollars for the fourth violation? The maximum fine for speeding in DC is $250, and as we all know, excessive speed can kill. It’s hard to imagine the grievous harm to society that we need to ward off with a thousand dollar fine for repeatedly taking back the wrong-numbered trash can.

6. Is there a city trash inspector at work in Burleith who has it in for the homeowners of this particular block? I haven’t heard of trash fines for this offense before, and I have to wonder whether this trash regulation is being enforced elsewhere in the city, or just in this isolated case. (As a somewhat related aside, at the beginning of August there was a report in the Washington Examiner about a spate of overzealous trash tickets given out in Ward 2 for offenses such having a single soda can in the trash instead of the recycling bin. See All Life Is Local,, for more on this story.)

Although I don’t have answers to any of the questions I’ve raised, I do have some solid advice. Two simple acts of prevention should save you from this threat, should it come to our ward. First, go out right now and jot down the registration numbers on your Supercan(s) and recycling bins, and store that number someplace handy. Second, find some means to affix your address on both the top and sides of your cans. (A broad-tipped Sharpie works well, or you can use weather-resistant stick-on letters and numbers). 

My last piece of advice is directed at anyone with any influence over the trash-ticketing regulations, and that is, work to right this wrong before the next trash truck makes a pickup. No one should ever have to fear a fine for pulling back the wrong can! Let us sort out our can numbers among ourselves, without intrusive eye of government upon us. When it comes to taking responsibility for our own trashcans, I say “Yes, we CAN.”

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