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GARBAGE BAG BATTLE IS ALL ABOUT ENSURING PRIVACY ISN'T TRASHED

HE IS DEDICATED to the proposition that nothing comes between a man and his garbage.

He is firm in his belief that orange peels and coffee grinds are sacred. That your trash is, if not your treasure, at least nobody else's business.

As Patrick Henry said: Give me liberty, give me death, but don't give me a clear trash bag.

His name is John Dobrzenski. He is 53, lives in the Village of Hamburg and doesn't want to put his garbage in see-through plastic bags.

Village officials had what they thought was a bright idea: Make everybody put their garbage in clear bags, so they can see if people are throwing out stuff they should be recycling.

John Dobrzenski replied: Don't tread on me.

Dobrzenski's point is simple yet profound: Garbage is the window to your soul. Who you are -- likes, dislikes, quirks, habits -- is revealed by what you throw out. And that's not anybody's business.

He refused to use the see-through bags. For 12 weeks, his garbage mound grew into a mountain. He hauled off the black bags last week, after a judge ruled him in violation of village code. But he didn't give in. Last week, he put the trash in brown compactor bags. Village employees sliced the bags open, photographed his garbage and left.

Today is trash day. Dobrzenski used brown bags again.

It may seem like much ado about nothing; stubborn guy vs. overzealous bureaucrats. It's actually a small battle for a big principle.

The way I see it, the spirit of Thomas Jefferson stands next to John Dobrzenski's trash.

Until Jefferson, Washington and the rest of the crew stepped in, King George's men routinely busted into houses and searched through the cabinets of colonists without so much as a please and thank you. It's why the revolutionaries penned the Fourth Amendment -- "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. . ."

It's about keeping government's sticky paws off of our stuff; its prying eyes out of our bedrooms. And trash bins.

The Supreme Court chimed in. Wrote Justice Harry Blackmun, in Roe v. Wade: "The Court has recognized that a right of personal privacy, or a guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy, does exist under the Constitution."

It's not just generically private stuff -- phone bills and credit card slips, sanitary napkins and condoms. There's personal interests that might be particularly embarrassing: The minister who reads Playboy. The distinguished physics professor who loves comic books. The spinster with a taste for leather underwear. There's some stuff you don't want to put in a recycle bin or a clear plastic bag. And shouldn't have to.

It goes beyond what passers-by can see at a glance. The guys who pick up the trash are under orders to check it out. What's to stop them from telling a buddy about the big-shot lawyer who wears Depends? About the local schoolteacher who takes anti-depressant pills?

Take it a couple of steps further, and they're in the house rummaging through the drawers.

"I don't have anything illegal to hide," said Dobrzenski. "But my privacy is important to me."

Dobrzenski may be stubborn, but he's no whacko or publicity hound. Without violating his privacy, I can tell you he's a quiet, well-mannered guy with graying hair who keeps a tidy house. He told me what he does for a living, on the condition I don't tell you. Suffice to say it's not a potentially embarrassing line of work such as, say, pornographic movies, toxic waste or politics.

The village wants to know who isn't recycling. Fine. It can find out easily enough, by keeping track of who doesn't put out the plastic recycle bins. Warn or fine anybody who isn't. The village gets its bottles and cans, the Fourth Amendment gets left alone.

Dobrzenski has recycled for years, using a plastic box he bought before the village handed out bins. He kept recycling even as this molehill grew into a mountain. There's no suspicion he's surreptitiously tossing his empty cans or old newspapers into trash bags.

The question is whether the village is stomping on his -- and everybody else's -- rights.

Dobrzenski says his next stop is State Supreme Court.

"I'll take it as far as I physically and financially can," he said. "I'm not going to back down."

He's got a rooting section. He says he's gotten about 70 calls, all but one in favor. A couple of his neighbors told me they didn't like the clear bags, either, but they didn't want to raise a fuss.

Well, here's to raising a fuss.

If somebody hadn't raised one 200 years ago, King George would still be rummaging through our closets.

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