Sometime soon, certain residents of New York City may feel like, to borrow a phrase from a certain 1980s pop song, that “somebody is watching them.” That's because in August, the City Council unanimously passed a bill designed to crack down on individuals and businesses that use public litter baskets to dispose of their trash.

The bill would create a presumption that a person whose name appears on any identifying information — such as a bill or bank statement — found in the offending trash bag is the person who placed the bag in the basket. Charged individuals could appear before the city's Environmental Control Board to fight the presumption.

The legislation also would stiffen the fines already on the books for using the litter receptacles to dispose of personal trash. A fine for a first violation would increase from a range of $25 to $100 to one of $100 to $300. At the other end of the spectrum, the penalty for a third violation would jump from a range of $200 to $300 to one of $350 to $400. As of press time, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had not yet signed the bill, but press reports indicate that he will.

According to a city report, up to 20 percent of all the material placed in public litter receptacles consists of commercial or residential trash that has been illegally placed there. “When residents or businesses place large plastic bags … in street wastebaskets, it immediately fills them up, leaving no room for the trash placed there by pedestrians, causing the baskets to overflow [and creating] a dirty area and street,” the report says.

According to the report, businesses put their trash in the baskets to avoid having to pay a private hauler; meanwhile, individuals do so for a variety of reasons, such as overstuffed trash-collection sites at their apartment complexes, says an article by The Associated Press (AP).

One person voicing opposition to the legislation is New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Donna Lieberman, who told the AP that it is “absurd” that trash with identifying information could be used to charge someone. “Maybe they ought to look at providing more garbage cans on the street instead of trying to put the burden on innocent New Yorkers,” she added.

Initially at least, there is something mildly queasy about city officials sorting through personal information. But, in the final analysis, the bill is a good one. Businesses and individuals should not be allowed to overburden the public waste infrastructure and avoid having to pay for disposing their trash on their own. And besides, it's not as if city officials would be invading their personal turf: the offending bags are being placed in public bins. This is one instance at least where it's good to have the government “watching” you.

The author is the editor of Waste Age