Can code officer decide what is trash?

by norma

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: Who decides what is trash (inside of a 30 gallon plastic container)? Is that the homeowner or the city code officer? Is there a code regarding this?

Editors Reply: We have no idea what prompted this question, and you didn't leave us your email address, Norma. Thus we are going to offer some general observations that may help you.

In general, we would say that the homeowner gets to decide what to throw away in the trash can. The city's code enforcement officials have no reason to go through your trash looking for things, except in the case of some possible provisions of your city's ordinances that we will talk about below.

Before we launch into that, though, we should say that if your 30-gallon trash can is overflowing and will not close completely, many a city's ordinances would prohibit that state of affairs. We haven't seen that enforced too often, as cities generally recognize that solid waste must be disposed of somehow, and that some items don't really fit very well in the rollout containers or large trash cans that may belong to the homeowner.

However, if yours is overflowing, that could be why the code official decided to get involved.

Another possibility could be that different kinds of trash are supposed to be treated differently. For example, where I live, I can't put my leaves and weeds into the trash can because there is a different fee structure for vegetation. Something like that could be the reason.

Next, we need to point out that in many towns and cities, code officers are pressed into service to help enforce any municipal or even county law that does not fit neatly into police work.

So in your case, there might have been a report that you were throwing away something that is not supposed to be disposed of through general trash collection. That "something" could be anywhere from hazardous waste, paint or paint cans, a dead bird you found on the sidewalk, or even shrubbery or small branches that are supposed to be disposed of in some other way.

Or instead of a neighbor reporting you, the code officer could have been driving through your neighborhood and noticed an item protruding from your 30-gallon can.

Another possibility is that the code officer spotted something coming out of the top of your garbage can that is supposed to be disposed of through making an appointment for bulk waste pickup. For instance, someone I know recently put a small television set in the trash container, but the garbage contractor noticed it and put it back on the curb because televisions are considered hazardous waste, and you need an appointment to have them picked up.

Now let's suppose that you are well aware of all the things you are not allowed to put in your trash can, and you have not violated any of these policies, knowingly or unknowingly.

Maybe the code officer was just nosy, or wanted to be nosy, or wanted to bother you for some reason. Maybe the code officer had been told by the city's or contractor's people who actually handle solid waste that way too much of something was being sent to the landfill, and that code enforcement should look out for a particular hazardous material or just items that are supposed to be picked up only for an extra fee. (For instance, at my house I have to pay for vegetation waste but not for household garbage, so if I started putting large amounts of grass clippings, spent flowers, or shrubbery or tree trimmings into the rollout container for household garbage, I would be asking for trouble.)

If you look into all of these situations and think that the code officer was just being nosy and that your judgment about what is trash should prevail, you should contact the code officer's supervisor and if that isn't satisfactory or you don't get a reasonable answer, complain to your elected official (city councilperson or equivalent).

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