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Recycling case against eco-activist grinds on

Last we heard from Kevin Stutler, back in August, he was patiently waiting for the Philadelphia Streets Department to come to its senses and grant him clemency for tossing a plastic bottle into the trash.

Last we heard from Kevin Stutler, back in August, he was patiently waiting for the Philadelphia Streets Department to come to its senses and grant him clemency for tossing a plastic bottle into the trash.

Since then, he says, the city has only added insult to injury.

"This whole thing has been too much," he said wearily this month over tea at a fair-trade café in Mount Airy.

Stutler, a 35-year-old organic gardener, vegetarian, and conscientious eco-activist, is known around the neighborhood for picking up litter, offering green advice, and always putting his recyclables in the proper blue bucket. In July, on his way to the airport, he picked up a squashed plastic bottle and some dog poop and threw them into the garbage can outside his home. When he returned from his trip, he found a ticket from the Streets Department wedged into his front door, informing him he owed a $50 fine for mixing recyclables with trash.

He protested. The department responded promptly, offering him a chance to argue his case at a hearing - 11 months later, in June 2011.

By then, Stutler planned to be long gone from Philadelphia and living in Oregon.

About 8:30 p.m. on a weeknight shortly after The Inquirer published an article about his plight, he heard a knock at his door.

It was a man from the Streets Department. "He told me, 'I've just come from a meeting. We're very sorry about what happened.' "

With some coaxing, the man identified himself as Chris Fields. Fields questioned Stutler about the recycling incident and told him, "I'll look into it."

Months passed. Stutler, who has multiple sclerosis, suffered several personal and physical setbacks. He had grown weak, and doctors did tests that revealed deterioration of the nerves in his neck and back. He lost his job as a quality-control officer for a pharmaceutical company, and the clock started ticking on his health insurance, which runs out in January.

Compared to this mud slide of problems, Stutler says, the $50 recycling fine was a mere cinder in the eye. But he figured that it was one of the few problems he had the power to fix.

On Nov. 18, he called the Streets Department and asked to speak to Fields. Unable to get through to him, Stutler left a message asking about the status of his case.

A few days later, he received a letter informing him that his hearing had been moved up to January.

Then, on Nov. 22, Stutler's doorbell rang at 7:15 a.m. Stutler got out of bed and found two more men from the Streets Department, who asked, "So what's the problem?"

Stutler repeated the story yet again, but he was offended by both the early hour and the men's gruff attitude.

"I've had enough," he said. "I don't have the energy for this anymore."

Last summer, Carlton Williams, deputy commissioner of the Streets Department, said that usually in these cases, the enforcement officers take photographs of the offending trash. In Stutler's case, however, no pictures were taken.

"From what I have heard about Mr. Stutler, he sounds like just the kind of person we want to support," Williams said last week. "But I can't just dismiss this case."

The department receives protests nearly every day from people who say they were unfairly ticketed for not recycling, Williams said. If he were to ask the Office of Administrative Review to drop the charge against Stutler, he said, it would open the door to a barrage of similar requests.

"But I will find out about the officers' rudeness," he said. "We don't condone that behavior."

Williams contacted Stutler late Monday and apologized for the officers' unprofessional conduct and their unannounced visits at unusual hours. Then, in consideration of Stutler's disabilities, he worked out an arrangement so Stutler could appeal the case in writing without appearing in court.

"I appreciated that," Stutler said. "He was pleasant, I was pleasant, and something got done."