I broke the city’s new cardboard recycling rule. Here’s what happened next

A rule-breaking recycling bin.
A rule-breaking recycling bin. Charlotte Observer

What happens if you flout the city of Charlotte’s unpopular new cardboard recycling rule?

Here is my tale of cardboard disobedience.

A refresher: Late last year, the city announced that all cardboard must be no larger than 18 by 18 inches before being put into curbside recycling bins. Folding that cardboard was not good enough, the city said. The pieces must be torn or cut.

A great outcry was heard.

Actually, it wasn’t much of an outcry, but that was because the city made the announcement with a few Twitter messages and a Christmas day Facebook post. But at least some who did see the new rules were steamed.

“Ridiculous!” said one, after the editorial board wrote about the rule. Others conjured images of elderly folks on their knees with box cutters. Why, they wondered, would the city want to deter people from recycling?

City officials have since backpedaled a bit, saying that the 18 by 18 inches was a loose guideline. The city also said it would accept pieces as large as 3 by 3 feet until Jan. 31.

What would happen after that date? Would offending bins be busted by the long arms of the recycle truck?

This week, as a not-quite-Pulitzer-worthy public service, the St. Onge family went rogue. Our bin (see photo) contained several cardboard pieces that clearly violated the 18 by 18 rule. The largest – a once-folded 4 by 4 foot box – poked defiantly out of the left side of the bin.

What happened? Nothing. The bin was dumped – at least this time.

Two reasons for that:

1) The city quietly pushed back the new rule again, this time to Feb. 28, Solid Waste Services spokeswoman Brandi Williams told me Tuesday.

2) Even if the rule had been in effect, I would have been OK because my bin had been successfully emptied.

Here’s why: The 18 by 18 rule is all about cardboard getting jammed in bins and blocking other recyclables, according to Williams. When that happens, residents call the city and ask why their bins are still full. That call triggers a process in which the city sends out a worker to determine why the bin wasn’t emptied. (It could be that the bin was too close to a car on the street, or that workers just missed it.)

Too often, though, the reason has been that large cardboard pieces are stuck in the bin. Hence, the 18 by 18 rule.

Now – or at least after Feb. 28 – if the city responds to a complaint and discovers big cardboard pieces, you will be issued a friendly warning. If it happens twice, the city will stop coming out to check. You and your cardboard will be stuck with each other.

Here’s what won’t happen: The city won’t be patrolling bins for 18-inch scofflaws. The city also won’t decline to empty anyone’s bin, even if you’re a repeat cardboard offender. No one is trying to deter people from recycling. The city is just trying to save some resources and make it less frustrating for everyone to do the right thing.

Is the 18 by 18 rule a bit of an overreaction to that frustration? Yes, and it still could be burdensome, especially to the elderly.

Could all that Williams explained to me have been better communicated to residents? Definitely. The city was a little clumsy with this one, but its heart – if not its cardboard – was in the right place.

Peter: pstonge