Westchester residents shouldn't be surprised this week if they wind up with an "OOPS" sticker attached to their garbage cans - it only means they need to do a better job of recycling.
County officials are ratcheting up compliance with Westchester's solid waste laws, which require a list of recyclables such as glass bottles, heavier plastics, cardboard and metal to be diverted from the trash that ends up in landfills or burned up.
Westchester has sent nearly 50,000 OOPS stickers to municipalities and garbage carters to remind residents that separating recyclables from garbage is required by law and that not doing it will affect them directly.
"A lot of municipalities are already gearing up ... conducting seminars for their larger waste generators like apartment buildings, to help them understand their responsibilities," said Susan Gerry, an aide to Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano who is working on the education campaign.
The first wave of stickers will be yellow, noting that the trash left by the curb has been collected despite containing recycled materials.
By Feb. 1, the OOPS stickers change to red and the garbage can will be left at the curb.
Education is the first step, county officials say. Enforcement will be the next as Westchester officials try to improve a 42 percent recycling rate.
In November, Spano announced plans to tighten recycling laws already on the books by checking more loads of garbage and fining those haulers and municipalities that don't divert heavier plastics, aluminum, tin and glass from the waste stream.
Individual fines can be assessed at $250 for a first offense, increasing for each infraction; and county officials are looking to update those amounts, which were set in 1992.
Though some carters and municipalities are considering requiring customers to put household trash in clear plastic bags to ensure that the garbage doesn't contain recyclable material, that isn't something county officials are eager to add to Westchester's solid waste laws.
Just the mention of clear trash bags when Spano announced the increased enforcement brought a rash of residents' concerns about privacy and government overstepping its bounds.
Clear plastic isn't necessary, anyway, according to one veteran public works official.
"Our local law, passed in 1992, does provide for us to require clear bags if we find someone who violates," said Jim Dunn, Dobbs Ferry's Department of Public Works superintendent. "But we don't really need it. If a bag is filled with bottles or cans, we know it and we leave it."
Dunn said Dobbs Ferry's DPW employees have put stickers on such mistakes for nearly 15 years, but will use the new county stickers to be part of the bigger effort and to signal the increased awareness to residents.
"Some things are going to get through," Dunn said. "But I'm telling my guys, the village doesn't want to get penalized for picking up the wrong stuff, so you better not pick up the wrong stuff."
The idea is to clamp down on carters bringing trash to transfer stations or the county's trash-burning facility, which will push compliance all the way back to residents preparing their garbage pails for pickup.
The bottom line, county officials said, is that residents will be asked to sort through their own trash more before putting it out, either as recycling or garbage.
With better separation and more care in putting aside aluminum food containers, milk jugs and other recyclables, the amount of trash going into landfills or being burned should decrease and budget savings should increase, officials said.
Gerry said the county has opened its recycling center to independent carters to give them another outlet for what they collect, but at least one businessman said Westchester needs to do better in communicating and in providing help to companies doing the work.
"I haven't received anything telling me we can go to the county facility," said Tyrone Mayfield, the owner of Mayfield Carting in Bedford. "This is being done by textbook folks. There's nothing better than being on the job to know what needs to be done. If I tell my customer more than once that I'm not picking up his trash, he's going to hire someone else. How are they going to deal with that?"
Gerry said county officials will check haulers' loads in various ways to ensure that the pressure to comply is spread equally, and the county wants to work with carters and municipalities to find workable solutions.