A galling fine for an avid recycler in Philly

Kevin Stutler peers into his recycling container, which drew the attention of city code enforcers while he was out of town. He wound up with a $50 fine for not separating rubbish and recyclables. He's fighting it.
Kevin Stutler peers into his recycling container, which drew the attention of city code enforcers while he was out of town. He wound up with a $50 fine for not separating rubbish and recyclables. He's fighting it.
Posted: August 28, 2010

Of all the trash bags on all the streets in all the city, they rummaged through his.

And then, they gave him a ticket for not recycling.

Kevin Stutler - a man who not only sorts his own plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, and empty cans, but also cleans up the trash from his less conscientious neighbors - could not believe the irony.

Acting on orders from the mayor and City Council to pressure residents to recycle, the Streets Department is dispatching 46 enforcers to rummage through the garbage people put out on the street. When they locate unauthorized materials in the trash, these inspectors have the authority, nay, the obligation, to act.

In principle, Stutler understands, even supports, the effort to reduce the waste sent to landfills.

But Sutler believes his fine - for failing to recycle a single plastic bottle - is ludicrous and unjust in a city filthy with litterers. Not to mention an appeals process that strikes him as, well, garbage.

It happened July 23. Stutler, 35, of East Mount Airy, a vegetarian, an organic gardener, and a quality-control officer for a pharmaceutical company, was headed to the airport. He was going to Ohio to help his wife take care of her grandmother, who had just had several strokes.

Before he left, Stutler dragged his recycling in the usual blue bin to the curb, but, not wanting anyone to steal his garbage can while he was away, he put the rest of his trash in a bag.

It contained some food that had gone bad in plastic containers and a few pieces of junk mail, he said, explaining, "I had my identity stolen once, and the police told me to put papers like that in different places, stain them with food, make them unappealing."

Walking to the car, he came across a crushed soda bottle that had been tossed into the street and a gift that someone's dog had left on the sidewalk. Using a scrap of cardboard, he scooped up the poop, tossed it along with the bottle into the trash, tied up the bag, and drove away.

A week later, when he returned, he found a ticket wedged into the wrought iron of his front door. A code violation carrying a $50 fine. "Recyclables not separated from rubbish."

"It was a kick in the face," Stutler says, pulling at the hair on his lower lip. "My volume of trash is low. I repurpose clothes, cookware, books."

He regularly volunteers on the city's tree-planting days, and, he says, "I do funny things like this. . . ." He excuses himself and rises gingerly from the dining-room table, returning a minute later with a quart-size plastic bag bulging with grungy batteries.

"I pick these up off the street," he says, plunking the bag on the table next to a copy of the ticket and the letters he has sent to the Streets Department in an attempt to resolve the matter. He lowers himself back into a wooden chair. "They're filled with toxic chemicals that can leach into the ground and the water."

Periodically, he takes the stash to a toxic waste recycling center, he says. "My general philosophy is conservation."

After earning his degree in botany at Ohio University, Stutler says, he worked as a soil scientist for an environmental cleanup company.

But in his late 20s, after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he and his wife bought a 20-acre organic farm in Oregon. "We lived in a school bus with solar showers in the woods," he says. His ponytail dangles to the waist of his shorts, which hang loosely on his hips.

"We had a couple hundred trees. We grew Asian pears, blueberries, apples, cherries, and green gauge plums, and we got a state grant to rehabilitate three acres of wetland as habitat."

Over time, they watched the animals return. Western pond turtles, salmon, coyotes, a blue heron rookerie, osprey, golden eagle. They raised ducks and chickens for eggs and brought classes from the nearby elementary school to the farm to managing land.

Four years ago, when Stutler's illness made the physical labor too difficult, he says, his wife applied to dental school and the couple moved to Philadelphia. They grow vegetables in the backyard and keep a worm farm in the garage.

Stutler gives a tour. He picks up the plastic lid, pierced with airholes, and reveals a bin filled with black clumps, lettuce, carrot peels, and newspaper strips. Dipping his hand into the moist gunk, he comes up with a handful of skinny worms.

"Eisena foetida," he says. "Red wrigglers. They make all these nice worm castings. They're happy little farmers."

As if the scene didn't speak for itself, Stutler has character witnesses.

"I've seen him pick up trash in the neighborhood," says Simone Cartwright, who lives across from Stutler. "He got a ticket? That doesn't make sense at all. He's one of the neighbors who makes everyone conscious about being environmentally responsible."

Cartwright, who runs a home-inspection company, says Stutler has given her gardening advice and bought her organic products to keep the bugs off her flowers. "And at block meetings," she says, "Kevin has explained the importance of separating trash."

Mistakes happen, said Carlton Williams, assistant commissioner of the Streets Department. Since the 1990s, the city has been ticketing people for not recycling, but under Mayor Nutter, enforcement has intensified, he said.

In 2005, Williams said, 13,000 citations were issued. In 2009, it shot up to 33,000. And that was only January through July, he said, because last summer, the $25 fine was doubled and Council voted to give citizens a six-month warning before they were hit with the tougher consequences.

Between January 2010, when the $50 fine went into effect, and July, Williams said, the enforcers have written 6,000 tickets for recycling violations.

Officially known as streets and walkways education and enforcement officers, the enforcers are trained to look for recycling containers. "If they don't see one, they're prompted to go through the trash," said Williams. "And if they see materials in there that should have been recycled, they issue a citation." It's a dirty job, but - never mind.

Williams said he would look into Stutler's case. Since May, the enforcers have been recording their evidence with digital photographs, but for some reason, the pictures are missing in Stutler's file.

Meanwhile, Stutler has requested an appeal, and after multiple phone calls and letters, he was given a court date.

For June.

"I don't know how I'll get to it," he says. "We're putting our house on the market."

His wife has a new job, so they are moving to (of all the places in all the world) Columbus, Ohio, where there is no here's-looking-at-you-kid fine. But curbside recycling is still going to cost him.

In that city, residents are charged for the service.

Pay it again, Kev.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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