Sure, the incentive to compost is the putative reason for this regulation, but exactly how is it enforced? In order for city officials and trash collectors to know you have committed the civic sin of disposing of leftover food in your trashcan, they have to examine the contents of your trashcan. Let’s hope the citizens of Seattle and trash collectors can come to some kind of silent truce over this. Do they collectors really want to examine every load they dump into the truck for transgressions? (Lord help us, the city probably offers a bonus of taxpayer money for tagging violators.)

In Seattle, wasting food will now earn you a scarlet letter — well, a scarlet tag, to be more accurate.

The bright red tag, posted on a garbage bin, tells everyone who sees it that you’ve violated a new city law that makes it illegal to put food into trash cans.

“I’m sure neighbors are going to see these on their other neighbors’ cans,” says Rodney Watkins, a lead driver for Recology CleanScapes, a waste contractor for the city. He’s on the front lines of enforcing these rules.

Seattle is the first city in the nation to fine homeowners for not properly sorting their garbage. The law took effect on Jan. 1 as a bid to keep food out of landfills. Other cities like San Francisco and Vancouver mandate composting, but don’t penalize homeowners directly.

As Watkins made the rounds in Maple Leaf, a residential neighborhood of Seattle, earlier this month, he appeared disheartened to find an entire red velvet cake in someone’s trash bin. Any household with more than 10 percent food in its garbage earns a bright red tag notifying it of the infraction.

So, the collectors not only have to examine your trash, but examine it closely enough to determine if 10 percent of it amounts to food. NPR’s reporting disputes my assumption, but what the collector is really saying below is he’s either painstakingly rifling through trash cans or ignoring the 10-percent rule and profligately offering tags and fines. Neither is good:

Watkins doesn’t have to comb through the trash — the forbidden items are plain to see.

“You can see all the oranges and coffee grounds,” he says, raising one lid. “All that makes great compost. You can put that in your compost bin and buy it back next year in a bag and put it in your garden.”

Seattle added a new law because it wants to meet its recycling and reduction goals, but has been unable to with existing, extremely stringent laws. So, you know.

Food waste is both an economic and environmental burden. Transporting the waste, especially for distances as far as Seattle does, is costly. So too is allowing it to sit out in the open, where it produces methane, one of the most harmful greenhouses gases, as it rots. The second largest component of landfills in the United States is organic waste, and landfills are the single largest source of methane gas.

I’m not saying the goal isn’t worthy. If you’d like to encourage this behavior or do a public awareness campain, fine. But at what cost does this kind of enforcement come? This town is no doubt populated with people who were extremely worried the PATRIOT Act would meant their mail would be read by George Bush or something*. But giving random city officials the right to quantify your trash? No problem.

Strange how city governments so seldom offer a financial incentive to families who might choose to have their Biore strips and old prophylactics and chicken wings examined by their local councilmen instead of just financially punishing everyone who doesn’t. They say compost and recycling. What they mean is compulsion and revenue.

*For the record, I have my own issues with NSA surveillance and metadata dragnetting, which are intellectually consistent with my reaction to this story.