Will Fines Stop Bad Recycling Habits?

recycling fines
Are fines necessary to get people to recycle properly?. Peter Dazeley

When prices received for scrap materials were higher, recycling companies and cities seemed more willing to absorb the cost of poor curbside recycling practices. As the market has eroded in recent years, however, cities are starting to take a tougher approach. They want to make sure that the right materials go into the right bin. Common mistakes include putting plastic bags,  greasy packaging or small container lids into the recycling bin.

You can read about those mistakes here.  

Applying attention to public communication and new collection and sorting technologies are being used to address the problem with various degrees of success in many cities. Some locales such as San Antonio and San Francisco, however, have gotten strict about these mistakes to the point of threatening to impose fines for incorrect recycling practices. Such announcements for the most part, however, seem to be aimed more at getting the public's attention than actually investing in adequate enforcement to ensure compliance.

San Antonio

San Antonio solid waste workers have been removing several hundred pounds of trash from recycling bins, including used diapers, hypodermic needles, and trash bags. That’s why the Solid Waste Management Department of San Antonio has declared that putting trash into curbside recycling bins will result in a $25 fine. But the fine seems to be more of a warning than a heavy-handed approach.

Only after two violations will residents discover fines added on to their monthly energy bills.

Tiffany Edmonds, a Solid Waste Management spokeswoman, said the fines are not to generate revenue for the department rather, to cover the cost of sending out pickup truck for the contaminated loads.

Ray Saldaña, a San Antonio councilman, said that the fines for putting trash into recycling bins are a citywide necessity.

Community education efforts have been unsuccessful in achieving the desired result of accurate bin usage.

San Antonio city council has set a goal of diverting 60 percent of waste from landfills by 2025. Increasing the overall recycling rate will be very important to attain the goal. San Antonio's Solid Waste Management department has sent its 345,000 residential customers letter explaining how they could face $25 fines for putting garbage into recycling bins.

San Francisco

With a goal to be waste-free by 2020, San Francisco has been aggressive in its campaign to monitor recycling bins and educate people about exactly what waste materials they should throw away. With landfill diversion rate of 80 percent - the highest in the country, San Francisco city council is already very close to attaining its goal. And it has become possible due to continuous community outreach and education.

Back in 2008, Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco Mayor of that time, proposed up to $1000 fines for homes that failed to properly sort their trash. While that proposal was criticized, residents of San Francisco are required by law to separate their recyclable waste and compost from rest of their trash.  

Melanie Nutter, the director of Department of the Environment in San Francisco, observed that the proposed fines served more as a consequence to get people's attention than rather than a tool actually being executed.

"I think people were concerned that there were going to be tickets or penalties or fines, and that has not been our approach," she said in 2013. "The department has yet to issue a single ticket.” As such, the threats of imposing fines for improper pre-sorting seem to have worked for San Francisco.


While buildings in Chicago with more than five units are required to recycle by law since 1993, the ordinance has rarely been enforced in the state. In June 2016, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed an ordinance which would require multi-unit commercial office and residential building owners to provide their tenants' single-stream recycling or risk steep fines. Noncompliance of the ordinance may result in $500 to $1000 for a first offense, $1000 to $2500 for the second and up to $500 for further violations.

As cities struggle to improve the sorting behaviors of residents, the threat of fines may be one way to get people to do the right thing when it comes to recycling, when other outreach efforts such as awareness and education fall short of achieving the desired outcome. Even at that, the intention of fines seems to be more of a move to generate attention than as a commonplace corrective measure.