Litterbug Bitten

IT APPEARS THAT WASHINGTON, D.C., is meticulous when it comes to managing its solid waste. As area resident Andy Chasin recently discovered, this scrupulous attitude has led to a zero-tolerance policy — and slapped him with a $35 fine.

Earlier this year, Chasin's mom mailed him a care package. After receiving the parcel, Chasin inadvertently slipped the air bill that accompanied the package into his pocket. He later discovered the bill while walking down Connecticut Avenue and placed the slip of paper into the trash can on the corner. End of story, right? Wrong.

Chasin received notice in May that he had violated the District's Improper Use of Litter Receptacles law. Attached to the notice was the evidence — the FedEx bill. According to the law, “Public wastepaper boxes shall not be used for the disposal of refuse incidental to the conduct of a household, store or other place of business.”

It doesn't matter that Chasin just disposed of a single sheet of paper. “We have an enormous problem of overflowing litter cans due to people putting their home or business trash in the public litter cans,” Mary Myers, spokeswoman for the city Department of Public Works, told the Washington Post. To combat illegal dumping, solid waste inspectors spot-check cans two nights per week. “The purpose of public litter cans is for simple pedestrian trash — cups, food wrappers, a gum wrapper, the kind of thing you would have in your pocket … A bill is something one could assume had been mailed,” she said.

Zero-tolerance policies are nothing new. Many police departments have declared a zero tolerance for people who fail to fasten their seat belts. And to protect themselves from potential lawsuits, school officials often create a system of absolutes for matters involving drugs and violence. While in office, President Clinton supported campaigns of zero tolerance — for terrorism, drug trafficking, teenage drinking and driving — in at least 29 speeches, according to the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, California remains committed to its goal of generating zero waste.

Yet even zero-waste advocates are realistic in confessing that it is unlikely that all waste can be eliminated in the foreseeable future. Moreover, a receipt crumpled up in a pocket would have been OK to throw away, Myers admits.

No one wants to tolerate violent activities or see people get hurt. But sometimes, as in the cases of straight-A students who have been suspended for bringing a Tylenol pill or Tweety Bird key chain to school, zero tolerance can mean zero common sense. In Chasin's case, perhaps the District's solid waste department should be a little more lenient. I understand that he broke the law, but I would argue that Chasin's single piece of paper did not come close to violating the rule's underlying intent.

Chasin is appealing his fine. But until his case is heard, D.C. residents would be well advised to toss trash with their name on it at home — and take zero chances with their city's zero-tolerance policy.

The author is the editor of Waste Age