AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The city's "scarlet letter" system joins a long line of policies designed to embarrass. But do they work?

As of January 1, the garbage produced by Seattle residents has come under a new kind of scrutiny. Workers for Recology CleanScapes, which handles recycling for the city, are looking in regular garbage bins for things that shouldn’t be there—specifically, food scraps. Residents who fail to comply with new regulations barring food waste from being placed in general trash will find their bins marked with a bright red sticker.

"I'm sure neighbors are going to see these on their other neighbors' cans,” a worker for Recology told a local public radio reporter. This “scarlet letter,” in the reporter’s words, will let everyone on the block know which households are contributing more than their fair share to the public waste stream.

The stickers are part of an educational effort to get residents used to the new system, which requires separating compostable waste, the same way separating paper, plastic, metal, glass, and other recyclables has been a requirement for years now. The program is intended to get the city closer to its goal of recycling and composting 60 percent of its waste stream, and it's one several other cities are considering adopting.

Starting in July, Seattle will begin issuing fines to the noncompliant, but they are rather minimal: $1 for private homes, $50 for multi-unit buildings (residents already must pay a fee for food-bin pickup, between about $5 and $10 a month depending on volume, in addition to the regular monthly fee for garbage service). Instead, the city is hoping the red stickers, and the shame that theoretically comes with them, will be even more effective than those modest fines.

Using shame as a way of enforcing good behavior is a tempting strategy, as any parent or boss knows, and various jurisdictions have tried it out for a variety of offenses. For a quarter century, beginning in 1988, New York City’s sanitation department slapped sickly yellow-green stickers on the windows of cars that were not moved in time for street cleaning, proclaiming the owners’ dereliction of their civic duty. Notoriously difficult to remove, they became known as “stickers of shame.” Sanitation officials, citing data that showed cleaner streets, said they worked. But they were hugely unpopular among drivers, and in 2012, the city council voted unanimously to ban the practice, resoundingly overriding then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto. “Our law will put an end to these unnecessary scarlet letters, once and for all,” trumpeted then council speaker Christine Quinn.

Shaming has been tried for more serious offenses as well, including drunk driving. In Ohio and Minnesota, convicted drunk drivers can be sentenced to marking their cars by affixing license plates that identify them as violators of DWI laws. In Minnesota, the plate number always begins with a “W,” leading to their nickname of “whiskey plates.” Civil rights advocates have argued that the plates hinder rehabilitation by stigmatizing offenders and making them targets of harassment by law enforcement. The effectiveness of the programs has not been documented, and similar efforts have failed to catch on elsewhere in the country. In Ohio, they are a distinctive yellow with red letters, and are widely known as “party plates,” which kind of makes you wonder if the point is getting across.

Other governmental efforts at shaming citizens have come out of criminal courts. A judge in Cleveland sentenced a man who threatened cops when calling 911 to stand outside the police station for days wearing a sign bearing his apology around his neck. Also in Ohio—that state seem to be big on this type of thing—a man who pleaded no contest to a disorderly conduct charge in a nasty years-long dispute with a neighboring family was sentenced to sit on a corner for five hours holding a sign that read: “I AM A BULLY! I pick on children that are disabled, and I am intolerant of those that are different from myself. My actions do not reflect an appreciation for the diverse South Euclid community that I live in.” People honked and yelled at him as he sat there.

Compared to cases like these, the stakes in Seattle are relatively low. No one is likely to feel that their life has been destroyed by a red sticker on their garbage can. It might, however, get them to start putting their egg shells and onion skins in the compost bin.

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