Keep Big Brother out of my trash

We don't need government to regulate everything.

Ever-perceived by the rest of the nation as perched on the fringe of rationality, San Francisco is about to flip its lid once again. The lid's color, if it's any comfort, is green – as in one of the three recycling bins into which its residents will be forced to sort their food waste.

The consequences for the unwilling, if the mayor has his way? Fines up to $1,000 from the garbage police.

I kid you not. Mayor Gavin Newsom is taking the leap from voluntary environmental engagement to an enforced one. You will recycle, or you'll be outed, says the legislation drafted by the city's Department of the Environment.

Other cities have mandatory recycling. San Francisco is upping the ante, creating the first composting law, directing where you'll dish your table scraps.

Currently, 70 percent of waste escapes the landfill. To meet a goal of recycling 75 percent by 2010, the mayor is about to displace voluntary compliance with mandatory enforcement.

If your coffee grounds are found drizzling through your black bin, not your green, well then, you've just found yourself on the wrong side of the law.

History repeatedly reminds us that extreme fervor by government leads to infringement on basic rights. Yet eager, young, and even brilliant leaders experience moments of impaired reason when confronted with an idea that appears a perfect solution for a historical moment.

So recycling, a mechanism that depends on the goodwill of rational people willing to pitch in to realign earth's growing environmental imbalance, begins to be transformed.

As the momentum of those who chose to recycle grows and as global warming leaves its footprint not merely on our consciousness but on our daily language, politicians opt in where they should not.

San Francisco's mayor certainly seems ready to seize a globally-growing awareness, flamed by millions of green individuals, initiatives, and innovations.

By what means? By regulation, punishment, and enforcement. For refusing to sort your trash.

Which brings us back to the penchant of governments left and right for inserting themselves into our lives, though arguably for less absurd infringements.

Don't liberal politicians, despite well-motivated attempts at social change, recognize that they can't legislate positive impulse? In the attempt, they obstruct the most effective way to bring about change: the ability of individual ideas and initiatives to expand into global problem-solving.

It is from grass-roots efforts that seeds of change proliferate: cellphones bring instant access to African villages still lacking electricity and micro-credit loans to Indian housewives create homespun entrepreneurs. Bicyclists descending on urban thoroughfares disable traffic and force motorists to contemplate their energy options.

Global solutions require visionary mind-sets, not government decree. Today, the lag time between the germination of an idea and its potential geometric expansion is almost nonexistent. Daily, individuals sitting at laptops become explorers, inventors, innovators, with ideas as the product and the thrill of discovery as the reward. In such a reconfigured technological landscape, threats and penalties are outmoded tools of change.

If personal initiative can bring the third world into the 21st century, surely San Francisco can add an additional 5 percent to a 70 percent voluntarily-achieved recycling rate without bringing Big Brother into the fray.

Anna Shaff lives and writes in San Francisco.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.