Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Mercer County Needs to Upgrade its Recycling Containers

Here's a story that demonstrates two surprising aspects of life in Princeton: the stubbornly backward nature of recycling in Mercer County, and the prevalence of unintentional pollution. 

Sunday evening, I put my recyclables out on the curb for pickup on Monday. Rain was forecast, so I left the lids on the otherwise lidless yellow and green "buckets" that Mercer County supplies us. Without lids, rain soaks the paper and makes the containers heavier for the crews to empty into the truck, and may lower the recycling value of the paper. 

I thought of putting a brick on top of each lid to prevent them from being blown off in the storm, but didn't have any close at hand. 

The next day, I found the lids had been blown into the street by the storm and were quickly crushed by passing cars, breaking into myriad pieces. 

Really hoping that the new administration in Mercer County replaces these recycling buckets with rollcarts that 1) have greater capacity, 2) have wheels and 3) have attached lids. The county is decades behind on this.

Friday, March 03, 2023

Are Pizza Boxes Recyclable?

When I lived in Michigan, the first ever Dominoes Pizza store was just down the road a bit, in Ypsilanti. Having moved long since to NJ, I was surprised to find a Dominoes Pizza box show up in our house, touting how recyclable it is. New Jersey, or at least Mercer County, has long told us that pizza boxes are not recyclable. What gives? 

The best I can figure is that unstained pizza boxes were always recyclable, but that we're told not to recycle them because some boxes will have grease, cheese and leftover food still in them.

What Dominoes is touting is a study that showed that the stains and a few bits of food aren't enough of a problem to ban pizza boxes from the recycling stream. 

An article in Sierra Club Magazine, citing the same study, supports that point of view. 

The study was published three years ago, and we're still told not to recycle pizza boxes. Was the study proven wrong? Not according to an article in USA Today earlier this month. What's at stake is massive amounts of cardboard that can either be recycled or head to the landfill, where they will decompose anaerobically and produce climate changing methane, when they could instead be reducing the number of trees that need to be cut down to make more pizza boxes. To give a sense of scale, 13 million pizzas are sold on Super Bowl Sunday alone, according to the USA Today article. Cardboard is one of recycling's great success stories.

So, why are we still told not to recycle pizza boxes? Is the county worried that any food left in the pizza boxes will contaminate other recyclables? But food can sometimes be left in tin cans, and we're allowed to recycle those. Why are we trusted to remove food from cans and glass, but not pizza boxes? 

The situation reminds me of a battle I waged ten years ago. Back then, we were told that envelopes with those cellophane windows were not recyclable. Well-meaning recyclers thus spent time tearing the windows out of envelopes so we could recycle the paper portion. Was it really necessary? I did research back then that showed that the windows are easily filtered out during recycling. I reported this to the recycling coordinator at the time, but nothing changed. The town website persisted in directing people not to recycle envelopes with windows. In retrospect, the town probably had to state whatever the county told them to. Ultimately, after much delay, the county changed its website to reflect the reality that envelopes with windows can in fact be recycled.

Dominoes says its pizza boxes dream of becoming more pizza boxes. But change comes slowly to the Mercer County Improvement Authority, whose most recent news release was more than a year ago, stating that pizza boxes continue to not be recyclable. Whether for good reasons or bad, I doubt Mercer County will help that dream come true any time soon.


Here's the study's conclusion:

"The general conclusion of this work is that the strength loss of the resulting product made with recovered fiber that incorporates post-consumer pizza boxes should be minimal at typical levels of grease expected to be received in a recycling facility (<2%) and when included in the recovered fiber at expected levels of <3% of furnish. The addition of small amounts of cheese will not impact the fiber bonding in a negative way. It is expected that the larger chunks of cheese will be screened out of the process. Therefore, there is no significant technical reason to prohibit post-consumer pizza boxes from the recycle stream."

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Rollcart Conformity for Princeton's Trash

It's the end of an era for a certain kind of diversity in Princeton. For as long as I can remember, Princeton's streets have been on the receiving end of an endless variety of stuff to be hauled away. Be it trash, recyclables, leaves or brush, each house would present at the curb its own motley assortment. Large or small, containerized or piled loose--it hasn't mattered. It has all gotten hauled away. Rare was the street that remained clean, even for a day.

Last week, that began to change. A truck came by, distributing new rollcarts to households. 

And on Thursday, the hodgepodge of trash cans and plastic garbage bags that had for so long been the norm was replaced by order, standardization, uniformity. A truck comes along, plucks the container up, empties it and sets it back down again before heading to the next. 

Orient the rollcart the wrong way, and the truck may not be able to empty it. (Update: Looks like they still have a crewmember on the ground, who rolls the cart to a "tipper hook" in back to lift and empty the cart, rather than the more automated arm that comes out from the side of the truck. The mechanical tipper hook at least reduces back strain for the crew.)

One home tried putting out the usual mish-mash menagerie,
but only the new rollcart got emptied. 

A few days later, another truck came by to pick up these last old style outpourings, swallowing the old trash cans as well in one big gulp. Large items that don't fit into the new rollcarts can still get picked up, but the resident has to send in a request each time.

Can a town with an endless diversity of opinions, passionately held and frequently expressed, accept the conformity of the new rollcarts? One homeowner predicted rebellion, a grand uprising of discontent that would spill into the town council's chambers. 

Ten years ago, I came to the conclusion that Princeton was allergic to such conformity. That's when the borough and township merged. At the time, each household in the township had to find its own trash collection service. Some chose corporate collectors like Waste Management; others chose some self-styled collector with a pickup truck. Trucks of varied size and descriptions drove hither and yon in the township, chasing trash. 

I was sure that consolidated Princeton would do what so many other towns and cities have done, and go with the most efficient collection method, with industrial strength, uniform rollcarts built to be mechanically lifted and emptied into the truck. 

But no. Though one hauler was chosen for the newly consolidated Princeton, the trash cans became a free for all. 

Hardware stores were glad to sell every shape and size container, which crews would then lift and empty into the truck by hand, their backs apparently impervious to strain. Even if these store-bought containers had wheels and hinged lids, they were too flimsy and varied in shape to ever be plucked up by a machine and emptied in an efficient manner.
Over time, homeowners gravitated towards the convenience of wheels and hinged lids, but these were all rollcart wannabees lifted manually into the truck. 

The rollcart wannabes on the left in this photo, and all other nonconforming trash cans, are now exiled from the street. If each house has accumulated three trash cans over the years, that's 30,000 trash cans that have lost their raison d'etre. Surprisingly, no recycler was found for all this bulky plastic. I looked at the two I have. One says it's #4 plastic, the other #2. Residents were urged to find creative uses for the now outdated containers, but one can't help but grieve that the throwaway culture is still the norm that environmentalists must burn their energy urging people to creatively resist.

Another surprise was that the town chose to distribute the 64 gallon size containers instead of the standard 96. The logic here is that a smaller container will encourage people to produce less waste. 

We'll see how it all plays out. For those wishing to hold onto the good old days, there's still the county's yellow and green recycling buckets, which lack wheels and lids, and tip over in the wind, littering the streets with plastic. And we can still pile loose yardwaste and brush at the curb, to sit for weeks, bleaching in the sun.

Hopefully, Princeton will grow to like its new rollcarts, and apply their efficiency to the collection of recyclables and yardwaste as well. There can be comfort in conformity, while we pursue diversity in other ways. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

Doors to Open, Doors to Close

As part of her advice to the graduating fifth grade class years ago, the principal of my younger daughter's elementary school said "If you open something, close it." I immediately remembered a scene in a movie in which Tina Fey comes around a corner and rams into drawers left open by husband Steve Carell. All my life, I have closed any drawers or cupboard doors I opened. It was automatic, but when someone else in the family began leaving them open, I started doing the same sometimes, a vexing corruption of habit that then required me to consciously remind myself to close them. 

What the principal didn't have time to go into is that, in a house, there are doors to purposely leave open, and doors to keep closed.

In our house, the doors of the refrigerator are immediately closed, of course, but the doors of a second refrigerator, unused and unplugged to save energy, need to remain open a crack. It looks funny and is counterintuitive, but if left closed, the anaerobic bacteria, which thrive in warm places where the air can't reach, will take over inside the unused frig and cause a stink. 

And in the laundry room, the door of the front-loader washing machine has to stay open when not in use. If it's closed, which looks nicer, the smelly anaerobic bacteria start flourishing there as well.

But the dryer? That door stays closed. Why? Because the dryer is vented to the outside, so keeping the dryer door closed when not in use will keep the outside air--too cold in winter, too hot and humid in summer--from coming inside.

Princeton Proposes a New Approach to Collecting Trash and Foodwaste

Princeton is trying to deal with rising costs for collecting and disposing of solid waste. According to the consultant Princeton hired, Wayne Defeo, other municipalities have seen increases of 45-150% when they seek bids for new contracts. Scarcity of workers has caused salaries to increase. Injuries, and therefore workmans compensation claims, are common in this line of work. Princeton has its trash hauled to a transfer facility at the Mercer County Improvement Authority, whose costs are the highest in the state. 

Princeton's current contract will end in December, 2022, providing an opportunity to do things differently and potentially minimize the increased cost of a new contract for collection next year. The town describes the options it is considering on its website. Below is a description that includes additional information gleaned from a presentation at town council on August 10.

One strategy the town will use to control rising costs is to automate collection. Instead of having a driver and two crew members collecting trash, an automated truck has only the driver, plus a mechanical arm that grabs a trash cart and empties its contents into the truck. This approach requires a particular kind of cart, sturdy enough to be lifted mechanically, and so Princeton is planning to provide each resident with a new cart that can be lifted by automated garbage trucks. There are different sizes of carts: 32, 64, or 96 gallon. Princeton will likely go with the 64 gallon size, though residents may be able to request a different size. The carts would have barcodes for quick identification, and labels describing what can be put in the cart.

Under this new system, which is typical elsewhere in the country, the trash cans residents currently own would no longer be useful for trash collection. The consultant stated at the August 10 council presentation (11:00 to 1:47:00) that residents' trash cans would be collected and either recycled or reconditioned and made available for reuse elsewhere. 

For bulk waste, that is, trash that a resident can't fit in the new 64 gallon carts, residents would need to make a reservation for free pickup. Bulk pickups would be weekly. Surveys of other towns found that 6-10% of residents put out bulk waste for collection. Each week in Princeton, the collection service would input data on what residents are requesting bulk waste pickup, and figure out the most efficient routes for their trucks to take. An app called recyclecoach was mentioned as one approach to making reservations, though reservations could also be made by phone.

Discussion at the council meeting suggested that bulk pickup is a service most commonly used in lower income neighborhoods, where renters come and go. 

The amount of trash generated by Princeton residents has increased from 5000 to 6000 tons over three years. One way to reduce the amount of trash headed to the Mercer County Improvement Authority and its high "tipping" fees would be to divert foodwaste from the waste stream. Foodwaste makes up 25% of the wastestream. Rather than sending foodwaste to the landfill, it would be collected separately and sent to a nearby composting facility. This could reduce the cost of tipping fees for this portion of the wastestream by 30%. Residents could also put herbaceous (not woody) yardwaste in the carts. 

Thus, Princeton will seek bids to divert foodwaste from the landfill and send it instead to a local composting facility. A foodwaste composting program would only be implemented if the bids prove affordable.

Princeton had a voluntary foodwaste program in the past, but it was terminated in 2019 due to lack of nearby facilities and problems with contamination. A particular problem was that some participants put their foodwaste in non-biodegradable plastic bags that messed up the composting process. Some plastic bags are compostable. Others are not, and will contaminate the composting operation.

Why does Princeton think that foodwaste collection and composting would work now when it did not in the past? Staff offer a number of reasons. New composting facilities have opened up, particularly one in Trenton that uses foodwaste to generate energy and a useful compost. In addition, the municipality has put together a staff that will be better able to monitor the program and educate residents on how to recycle foodwaste correctly. 

Princeton is therefore seeking bids from haulers for weekly collection of foodwaste from all residents. If the bids prove affordable, Princeton would go ahead and begin collecting foodwaste curbside again. For this organics collection, each resident would be given a 64 gallon compost cart. All kinds of food, including meat and bones, could be placed in this cart. Potentially, some compostable types of paper, such as pizza boxes, could be placed in the carts as well. Though all residents would receive a compost cart, participation would be optional, at least at first. Residents would be required to keep the carts whether they participate or not, because separation of foodwaste from trash could become mandatory in the future. The town's new compliance officer would monitor compost carts placed at the curb, and help residents limit contamination. 

The relatively large size of the 64 gallon carts (the green compost carts used for the voluntary foodwaste program were 32 gallon) will make it possible as well to containerize some yard waste that might otherwise end up as little mounds decorating the streets yearround.

There are lots of questions to ask. Could residents get carts that are larger, or smaller, than the 64 gallon size? Will residents be supplied with countertop containers for holding foodwaste in the kitchen? If the separation of foodwaste from the trash is optional, how many residents will actually change their habits and make use of the carts they are given? Will monitoring and education be enough to control the contamination of the foodwaste stream that was a problem in the past?

All of this is a prime example of how complex are the basic municipal services that keep our town functioning. And this proposal does not include a plan for shifting away from expensive loose collection of yardwaste that leaves our streets messy year-round. In any case, change is a'commin'. The carts are standard elsewhere in the country. They have lids to keep the contents dry, and wheels for easy mobility. Sometimes change can be for the better.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

Conspicuous Consumption: A Noisy Refrigerator Cooling for No One

The part of me that has always wanted to fight for our collective future has long been puzzled at how rare that impulse is. The destructive impact of climate change is increasing with each passing year, and yet energy conservation is rarely mentioned these days. There's some talk of solar panels and wind generators being put somewhere someday, but to stop pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, we must also collectively consume far less energy. It's been so drilled into us that we must feed the economy by consuming that it seems unnatural if not heretical to consciously consume less. 

The motivation to consume less, at least in me, and despite all the indoctrination, comes from an understanding that machines are both our friends and our worst enemies. They serve in many wonderful ways, and yet their dependence on future-killing energy makes them at the same time our enemy. 

This scene inside the Princeton Public Library tells one story of why we are losing the battle for the future. The cafe has been closed for nearly two years, and yet the display refrigerator unit on the right, the "Grab and Go", is still running. Has it been left on for two years, despite being empty? A library employee made it sound like it actually has. 

This may be the same noisy display refrigerator that used to make it hard to hear whatever wonderful speaker had drawn an overflow audience to the Community Room. Its downsides--noise and energy consumption--made it problematic when the cafe was open. To see it running when the place is closed just deepens the sense of mourning for a world that seems not to know how to collectively fight for a collective future.

One refrigerator makes little difference in the world, and yet a battle is won through countless small acts by countless people who understand that they are part of a larger effort. 

BTW: Any unplugged refrigerator needs to have its doors left partially open, to allow air to circulate. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Another Reason to Containerize Princeton's Leaf and Yardwaste Collection

This blog has long made the case for Princeton to progressively shift towards containerization of leaves, yardwaste, and brush. The aim would be cleaner streets, better compliance with state and local requirements, and substantial reduction in costs for taxpayers. There are many additional reasons why municipalities elsewhere in the country have adopted containerization over collecting loose material tossed in the street. 

A recent trip to the Lawrenceville Ecological Center offered yet another reason to make the shift. The composting site, out on Princeton Pike, is a wonderful facility, with windrows of compost stretching into the distance. They produce two products, one of which is composted leaves, the other twice ground wood chips. Both of these get piled high and are available for residents of Lawrenceville and Princeton at no cost.

It sounds great, and is great, but they do have a problem. There's more compost and woodchips than they can get rid of. In the first photo is the big pile of compost that has been sitting there for more than a year. And the Lawrenceville public works director told me that the demand for their double ground woodchips has declined since homeowners have come to prefer the darker look of artificially dyed wood chips. 

It's expensive, in fuel and staff time, to compost material that then accumulates unused on-site. 

How would containerization help reduce the excess product, and thereby save Lawrenceville and Princeton significant cost? The limited capacity of a large compost cart would create an incentive for homeowners to utilize some of their leaves in their own yards, by mowing them back into the lawn, leaving them under shrubs as mulch, or piling them in a back corner to return to the soil. It would also reduce the noise of gas-powered leaf blowers, which classically drone on while blowing loose leaves into the streets. 

By providing homeowners with large rollcarts, the town would achieve a much-needed compromise between the current massive loose collection of yardwaste and the "leave the leaves" approach many environmentalists promote. Such a change can be phased in, integrated into existing collections of yardwaste bags, and targeted initially for residents on busy streets where piling loose material in the street is not an option. Like many public policy issues, this one has many layers of complexity, and will require receptivity to change, and a recognition of what has worked elsewhere. 

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Another Tricycle Saved From Oblivion

This story picks up where the children's story, The Little Engine That Could, leaves off. How to keep all those toys for little girls and boys from a premature trip to the landfill?

When a tricycle is put on the curb for trash pickup, the first step in saving it from the landfill and giving it a new life is to figure out why it's being thrown away. Maybe the kids outgrew it, in which case it's simply a matter of finding it a new home. Or maybe there's some small issue that made it no longer useful. 
This one was easy. A plastic disk on the front wheel would slip out of place, so that the pedals no longer made the wheel turn. All that was needed was some sort of sleeve to hold the plastic disk in place. I happened to have a little screw clamp thingamajig in the basement workshop that worked perfectly. 
Functional once again, the tricycle joined a surprisingly large population of similar trikes enjoying a second life in the little pocket park beyond our backyard. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Easy Fix for Broken Microwave Oven

One of the great wastes in society is microwave ovens that suddenly stop working and get thrown away, when they could have been easily repaired. Most times, all that's needed is a new fuse, bought for $5 at the local hardware store. (First make sure that it isn't one of your house fuses that was tripped.)  Over the past two weeks, I've saved two microwaves by inserting a new fuse. If you like fixing things, or know someone who does, this is a great way to save a good appliance. 

Check out youtube videos about how to replace a fuse on your kind of microwave, and be sure to unplug the appliance before doing any work. In this photo, the new fuse is in the front, and the old fuse is in the microwave, near the top of the photo. Accessing it requires unscrewing the metal sheath that encloses the microwave. Be sure to remove the glass plate inside the microwave before turning it over! The sheath slips off but has metal grooves that need to be fit right when putting the sheath back on. Sometimes a special bit is needed to unscrew the sheath, but these are available at larger hardware stores. I pry the old fuse loose with a screwdriver, carefully avoiding disturbing anything else in the microwave. Then read the tiny print on the fuse to see whether it says 15A or 20A. Buy a new one, put it in, put the microwave back together, plug it in and see if it works. If it doesn't, then something else is wrong, but I've only had that happen once.

Monday, March 29, 2021

How To Dramatically Reduce Littering in Princeton

Both recycling days in March have been windy, which means recyclables are getting blown all around in the streets. This is the perfect example of how so much of the harm done to our shared spaces, be it a town street or the planet, is unintentional. Even when there's no wind, recyclables often fall out of overfilled bins. The fine for intentionally littering in NJ is up to $500, with a $100 minimum penalty. That law is not protecting us nor our environment, nor are any laws protecting the atmosphere from all the extra CO2 being unintentionally sent skyward.
Well-designed stormdrain grates prevent some of the plastic from entering waterways, 
but other plastics can still slip through, ending up in Lake Carnegie and ultimately the ocean, where plastics accidentally get eaten by aquatic life, building up in their guts. 

Plastic, made from fossil fuels, is the visible form of carbon pollution. Excess CO2, formed by combusting fossil fuels, is the invisible form of carbon pollution our machines send skyward from tailpipes and chimneys.

Most of the plastics pollution Princeton generates is due not to selfish disregard but to Mercer County's small, lid-less recycling bins that tip over in the wind. Shall we slap the wind with a $500 fine? How about fining the recycling bin for being poorly designed?

As with all the unintentional pollution by which we collectively harm the planet, the solution needs to be collective as well. Large, lidded rollcarts are widely used elsewhere in the country, and could largely solve the problem. 

The county could, for instance, phase out the old yellow and green recycling buckets by supplying large 64 or 96 gallon rollcarts for replacements, new customers, and anyone else who wants to make the change. Trucks would need to be fitted on the back with hydraulic tipper hooks ($5000 for each truck). Lids keep contents dry, wheels ease the homeowner's burden. Capacity is more than twice the small buckets. There are many advantages. County? Time to step up and help Princeton keep its streets clean.

Monday, March 01, 2021

When Trash Talks

Do the trash collectors take furniture? I'd started to see a lot of furniture left uncollected on trash day, and had heard that the policy had changed to make that service more limited. But the Princeton municipal website says they still take bulky items, up to the size of a 2 seat couch. 

But this homeowner had a three seat couch. It disappeared on trash day, however, which may have had something to do with that bucket with a sign next to the couch. 
"Drinks for waste management," the sign says. I'd seen this bucket out before, with a variety of drinks and snacks. 

While all the other neighbors had shoveled their sidewalks, this one had not. I thought they were out of town and oblivious, but the trash offered a different story. Of course! The shovel broke.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Using an Electric Car as an Emergency Generator

One of the acts of kindness we received during the recent power outage came from my friend Perry, who called up offering to bring his electric car over to run our refrigerator for awhile. Needless to say, we took him up on the offer. 

He brought his own extension cord that put ours to shame. He explained that a thicker wire offers less resistance to the electricity as it heads from his car to our frig. His electric car can serve as an electrical supply for home appliances only because he bought and installed an adaptor of some sort. Perry's also used it at Veblen House to run a vacuum. Power tools like a circular saw, however, cannot be run on this system because they use too much energy when they are starting up. Many machines use much more energy when they are starting up than when they are running. 

Perry retrieved his car a few hours later, by which time our refrigerator was good for the night. The next morning, energy was restored, and we were back to suckling from the mother grid.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Bicycle Inner Tube Scarcity Hits Princeton

A week ago, when a patched bicycle inner tube refused to remain patched, I resigned myself to buying a new inner tube only to find out that a local bike shop had none in stock. Then, driving on the east side of town, I came across a bicycle locked to a stop sign with a note from the owner kindly pleading that no one remove his bike while he awaits the arrival of an inner tube to repair it. Turns out that the pandemic has reduced supplies coming in from China, while increasing demand for bikes and bike parts in the U.S. 

It's astonishing to think that, before the pandemic hit, the only shortage encountered hereabouts was the great pumpkin shortage of 2015, which registered in Princeton as a nearly year-long empty spot on the shelf at McCaffery's food market where cans of Libby's pumpkin puree have traditional sat. That empty foot of a bottom shelf was like a shrine to shortage, in a time when the global economy was making everything else available all the time, stuffing us to the gills with stuff. According to one article, Libby's has 80% of the canned pumpkin market, and grows 90% of sugar pumpkins in Illinois, where heavy rains spoiled the crop that year. Until the pandemic hit, that was it when it came to blips in the stream of commodities flowing our way. 

Yesterday, I found the right sized inner tube at another bike shop in town, and noticed that the bike that had been locked to the sign post had finally been retrieved. 

Monday, August 03, 2020

The Logic of Banning Grass Clippings From the Streets

There's a law against placing grass clippings in the street. There are multiple reasons for this. Grass clippings are high in nitrogen, which stimulates algae growth in local waterways. As grass clippings decompose at the curb, they release the nitrogen, which then gets washed into streams as runoff from the streets, causing nutrient pollution. 

Grass clippings also are very dense, which means air can't penetrate into a pile of them, which means that the decomposition goes anaerobic, encouraging bacteria that release noxious odors. When a pile of grass clippings that's been sitting awhile gets run over by a car, it releases those foul odors into the neighborhood. 

A pile of grass clippings is ugly and mars the appearance of any property it is piled in front of, though psychologically this doesn't seem to register for most homeowners. As soon as the grass clippings are successfully purged from the property, they are someone else's problem and cease in some way to exist.

The last reason it is unlawful to put them in the street is that grass clippings can easily be left on the lawn, to quickly drop down between the new grass blades and return their fertility to the soil. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Relevance of Tallship Training in the 21st Century

Memorial Day is a good day to tell of a most unexpected visitor to Philly this past September. The literature calls it "America's Tallship", the Barque Eagle, and shows it plying the open seas in full sail.

This is what it looked like, docked behind the performance stage at Penns Landing. Specs show the three masts to each be 15 stories high, on a ship 300 feet long. Nice relict from a bygone era, it seemed,

but as we approached, a group of young sailors in military uniform greeted us and invited us on board to have a look around. Their look of happiness and pride seemed too genuine to be a product of disciplined show. And, yes, the ship actually does sail, touring the world, with a mission of training leaders and spreading goodwill.
Why would the Coast Guard train its future officers on a sailing ship built in 1936? Their website explains:

"Because the ways of old still have much to teach. The conditions and situations that you face under sail can’t be replicated either in a classroom or aboard today's modern ships. 
"On board Eagle, cadets find themselves suddenly out of their element. Totally dependent on wind, waves and currents, they quickly learn how these forces of nature affect a vessel. They become skilled in ship-handling, decision-making and meeting unexpected challenges. They learn the importance of crew members working together to handle the ship safely."

With 23 sails and 6 miles of rigging, the ship requires all 55 crew members working in harmony just to come about. Sailing teaches a deep understanding of and respect for the forces of nature and the power of collective action. These are the profound lessons Americans once grew up understanding as part of life, back when we partnered with nature, before we turned most work over to machines, and grew so powerful and isolated from nature that we thought we could dominate and ignore it. Even farmers far from the sea still needed to respect the forces of nature, and bring many hands to the task of raising a barn.

In a sense, the pandemic is reteaching forgotten lessons about respecting the forces of nature and the power of collective action. It's also broadening our understanding of what it means to serve and defend our country. We've learned the hard way that it's not enough to pay a military or build a wall, then pay periodic solemn respect for heroes while the rest of us do our own thing as we please. We're in this together, military and civilians, and will be saved or harmed by the collective sum of our individual actions.

There are a few quirks and ironies to this iron-hulled tallship that should be pointed out. It was built by the Nazis and originally used by them to train sailors, prior to being confiscated by the U.S. as war reparations after WWII. And even though it has half an acre of sails, it still is fitted with a diesel engine that provides about half the power.

Still, I stepped off the Barque Eagle with a deepened pride and sense of connection to those in uniform who on this ship step back into a previous era to learn lessons that continue to gain in relevance as time passes and numbers swell.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Picking Up Litter During a Pandemic

Local environmental groups--the Watershed Institute, DR Greenway, Friends of Princeton Open Space, Friends of Herrontown Woods, Friends of Rogers Refuge--are encouraging people to pick up trash while out for walks. The pandemic changes the dynamics of this activity, so Sustainable Princeton offered a protocol, below, that includes gloves and a mask.

The urge to intervene in public spaces varies considerably from one individual to the next. My habits of intervention probably began when my father offered my brother and me a nickel (or was it a penny?) for every tin can or bottle we could bring back from the woods. It must have been a throwback to WWII, when every little scrap of metal was needed for the war effort. With the investment of only a dollar or two, my father incentivized me for a lifetime, not only to pick up trash but also to keep sidewalks and nature trails free of obstruction. The act is motivated by an empathy for those who come after--a sense that we are guardians of the future, be it the next person to come along or the next generation.

The most dramatic evidence that not everyone is invested with this instinct came when I'd walk my daughter to grade school. One time, a sidewalk close to the school became blocked by a fallen branch. It wasn't large, but was enough to force parents and kids to walk around it, onto ground that could get muddy after a rain. My instinct was to bend down and move the branch, but I decided instead to leave it there as an experiment, to see how long parents would passively tolerate being inconvenienced. Finally, after two weeks, I couldn't take it any more and spent the thirty seconds required to push the branch out of the way.

Though there are a few litter bugs out there, most litter on the streets is unintentional, the collateral spillage that happens during curbside collection of recyclables. The recycling bins Mercer County has Princeton using are of small capacity and lack lids, making them more prone to spillage. If strong winds coincide with recycling day, bins on the curb can capsize, spilling contents into the street. Rain then directs the litter down storm drains and into local waterways.

Therefore, cleaning up a streetscape or naturescape is largely an opposition not between good people and bad people, or the thoughtful and the thoughtless, but between intentionality and unintentionality. When it comes to nature and the planet in general, unintentionality is winning, particularly given the widespread ideological bias against intentional collective action to solve collectively created problems. But the pandemic has dramatized the importance of intentional, collective action to minimize the unintentional spread of the coronavirus.

That said, here are the guidelines being recommended locally for picking up litter during a pandemic:

The next time you go outside or take your dog for a walk, grab gloves and a bag, and pick up trash. You can pick up litter during a walk around the neighborhood, in your backyard, in the street, in a nearby park or anywhere else you see trash on the ground.

When you participate, be sure to exercise
social distancing and follow these guidelines:
  • Do this activity alone or with your family or the people you are living with, not with friends or other groups
  • Wear gloves and a mask
  • Stay 6 feet apart – be sure to give people plenty of room to pass around you
  • Exercise caution on trails where the paths can be narrow; step off as needed to ensure that the 6 feet distance is maintained
  • Do not congregate in groups!
  • Wearing brightly colored clothing if picking up litter along streets
  • Dispose of gloves and trash properly and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water when finished

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Princeton's Passeggiata and the "Slow Yard" Movement

Hidden behind the pandemic's grievous toll has been something of a flip side, a reawakening amidst the sorrow, what my friend Ron described to me as "a glimpse of a kind of beautiful world." He went on to explain:
"With humanity on pause, you can sense everywhere nature's resurgence - and it's all across the globe. It's as though the entire planet is heaving a great sigh of relief. Clear skies, and quiet; Robins can hear worms underground again. But even on the social plane, there's a sense in which people are rediscovering the pleasures of strolling, of encountering one another - even at the required distance - without car-bubbles and speed sealing them off. Have you noticed the passeggiata that has been taking place in Princeton's streets lately, in the early evening?"

"Passeggiata"--I had to look it up. In other words, Princeton's streets, largely freed of cars in the evening, are becoming the shared public space they always had the potential to be. Most front yards are meant to be experienced with "car-bubbles and speed," that is, rapidly if at all. Nothing much more than turf and some static shrubs.

A few yards, though, reward slower passage. A recent leisurely bike ride up Ewing Street was rewarded with these scenes from people's front yards: a cautious congregation of old chairs social distancing,

a wooden pony trying out its new legs,

its head fashioned from a serendipitously shaped piece of red cedar with ears, a mane, and a mouth.

A repurposed birdbath provide fairies with a spot to shelter in place. The ladder is a practical touch. How else would the fairies be able to take part in Princeton's passaggiata every evening?

That's a Wishing (the earth) Well on the right--a circle of fencing with an inner column for composting food scraps, surrounded by a leaf corral. It's designed to hold and separately compost lots of leaves and food scraps. No odor, and no work other than retrieving the compost every autumn before new leaves fall.

All of these front yard examples involve reuse--making something positive out of what would otherwise be viewed as a negative. Like finding some pleasure in an evening stroll amidst the tragedy of a pandemic. Posting about this on facebook, it occurred that the slow food concept could be extended to "slow yards" that are best experienced at a slower pace.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Renewable Energy for Princeton -- Real Electrons and Abstract RECs

After researching the Princeton Community Renewable Energy (PCRE) program that takes effect on May 6, I can say with some assurance what it will not do.
  • It will not affect PSEG's profitability, since PSEG does not generate electricity. Instead, it makes money from providing the wires and other infrastructure needed to deliver electricity supplied by someone else. Each customer is free to choose a supplier. In this case, Princeton is choosing our supplier for us, unless we opt out.
  • It will not change the source of the electricity that comes into our houses. The electrons that power your appliances and light bulbs are largely produced from fossil fuel and nuclear plants, and will continue to be. If any of the electrons you're using are renewable, it's probably because one of your neighbors has solar panels that are feeding solar energy electrons into the grid.
What Princeton's PCRE energy program will do is require the chosen energy supplier to buy Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) for 50% of the electricity participating customers buy. Understanding what that actually means is not easy. The concept is abstract, and its benefits vary. RECs are defined by Sustainable Princeton as "the industry-standard means to assign a financial value to the environmental benefits of clean energy production." Requiring the supplier to buy them will "support the development of renewable energy generation," and "accelerate the installation of renewable energy infrastructure faster than would otherwise happen."

Princeton has hired a consultant to answer people's questions about the program. When I sent a question to the help desk (, I was told that "purchase of RECs does not change the amount of renewable energy being produced in real-time." Rather, the program will "create the incentive for more renewable energy to be built in the future." (fuller quote further down)

In other words, Princeton is not buying renewable energy. Instead, it is encouraging the building of renewable energy in our region and elsewhere in the country. A government article entitled "The Role of Renewable Energy Certificates in Developing New Renewable Energy Projects" states that "the importance of RECs in building new projects varies."

When I tried to give input on Princeton's sustainability plan, I approached the problem of renewable energy from a physical perspective. Renewable energy falls on Princeton in the form of sunlight. We can capture that energy with solar panels, trees, and by capturing solar energy through our windows in the winter. To physically reduce our town’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, we need to utilize that solar energy. The approach instead seems to focus on encouraging others to produce the energy elsewhere, through RECs. Though this is laudable, it's not the same as actually reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions.

There's a lot of misinformation out there. Michael Moore's recent movie, "The Planet of the Humans," is a shockingly skewed polemic, but buried within its willful distortions are a good point or two. Renewable energy is not perfect. Giant wind generators and fields of solar panels are industrial installations that can radically alter the landscape. They are a great improvement over fossil fuels, but if built in quantity, their impact on ecosystems can be substantial. 

These realities suggest that Princeton would best reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from electricity use primarily by minimizing consumption through efficiency and good energy management at home, and maximizing its own production, mostly through rooftop solar. Rooftop solar does not disrupt habitat, and in fact provides shade that can keep a building cooler in the summer. Encouraging production elsewhere through buying RECs is beneficial to some extent, and I'd encourage residents to participate, but it is less certain in its overall impact. 

Even on cloudy days, electrons from your neighbor's rooftop solar array are pouring into the wires outside of your home. Some of those electrons then enter your home and power your furnace, A/C, refrigerator, etc. Those solar panels will keep producing renewable energy for many decades. You can get them installed for free, essentially by leasing your roof for energy production for 20 years, or you can buy a system that will pay for itself in around seven years, after which all the energy produced is gravy. That, for me, is real. 


Average home electrical use in New Jersey: 700 kWh per month. How does your management of your home energy use compare?

A fuller quote from the town's consultant:
The PCRE program requires that the program supplier purchase and retire an additional amount of RECs above and beyond that required for compliance with the State’s RPS. By requiring the purchase and retirement of additional RECs – taking those additional RECs out of circulation - this mechanism takes additional supply of RECs out of circulation, thereby creating the need for additional RECs to be created in the future to satisfy future requirements, and providing the financial incentive for development of future renewable energy projects. Thus, purchase of RECs does not change the amount of renewable energy being produced in real-time; rather than taking renewable energy away from other customers as you postulate, a program such as this will actually create the incentive for more renewable energy to be built in the future.
Followup questions I asked the consultant, with no response as yet:
  • I think what you're saying is that if Princeton and other entities enter into contracts that require an energy company to buy and retire more SRECs than are currently available, then the company is obligated to purchase those SRECs at some point in the future when they become available. But the contract has a fixed end point. Who will enforce the company's obligation to buy and retire any SRECs not purchased during the duration of the contract?
  • The links below suggest that there's some question as to how much SRECs encourage the development of renewable energy projects, and also say that the SREC program will be ending in NJ. Does the ending of the program affect Princeton's contract?
This link suggests that the role of SRECs in encouraging the development of new renewable energy projects seems to depend.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Handle-less Rake Finds Its Mate

Oftentimes, in pre-COVID scavengings of stuff put out on the curb, I would find tops without bottoms, and bottoms without tops. This would happen with tables that lacked legs, or legs that lacked a table. And it would happen with rakes where either the handle or the rake itself was broken. Patient matchmaker that I am, I would keep the good portion and wait for a match to come along.

Such a long awaited marriage took place today, with modest fanfare, when a perfectly fine rake that had been waiting in the carport for the right handle to come along finally got its mate. A red rake had cracked across the middle, making it unusable.

The marriage had been delayed, due to the broken rake's unexpectedly tight grip on the handle. Various tools were brought to bear, with a chisel finally proving effective.

That's part of the challenge of repurposing and repair. In terms of time spent and money saved, the matchmaking may not make obvious sense. One could argue that it's better for the economy to go to the local hardware store and buy a new rake, which helps in a small way to sustain those all along the chain of extraction, processing, manufacture, distribution, and selling that makes a new rake available. But if everyone repairs and reuses, then people need less income to buy new stuff, including everyone who builds or sells rakes. Standard of living would be maintained even as the energy-intensive economy seemed to shrink.

That's a theory. What's more surely real is the patience, persistence, creativity, resourcefulness and physical coordination that go into reuse and repair--all good things to exercise.

Monday, April 20, 2020

For Recycling: Necessity Is the Best Educator

The pandemic has demonstrated how quickly people can change their ways and adapt to new circumstances when they have to.

Another example is how quickly homeowners have adjusted to new restrictions on what can be recycled curbside. The rules were always in place, while earnest environmentalists and town staff labored unsuccessfully for years to convince homeowners to voluntarily comply.

The underlying message of all those calls for voluntary compliance was, alas, that compliance is voluntary, and therefore unimportant and unnecessary. That's the message people picked up on.

Only when collection crews began leaving contaminated bins of recyclables uncollected at the curb did homeowners wake up. They experienced what I would call "catharsis interruptis." Most bins went uncollected the first week, due to contamination with plastic bags, motor oil containers, etc. On the second collection, maybe a third of the bins remained unemptied.

By the third pickup, nearly all homeowners had gotten the message and adjusted their recycling habits to fit requirements, except for a stray pizza box (the greasy cardboard isn't recyclable) and some unflattened boxes.

In other words, necessity achieved in a month what education initiatives failed to achieve in twenty years. People may seem stuck in their ways, but that's deceptive. Impose necessity and we suddenly become very adaptable and quick to change.

Does Runoff Actually Reach the Fuel Station Raingarden?

The job of a raingarden is to receive, slow down and filter runoff before it enters a watershed. The runoff also serves to sustain whatever's planted in the raingarden.

Oftentimes, however, raingardens are installed without checking if the water that hits surrounding pavement is actually flowing into the raingarden. That runoff becomes particularly important for sustaining the vegetation since Princeton removed the roof that was built over the fuel station, due to neighbor complaints about its appearance. Where does the water that used to hit the roof now flow?

Checking that requires some counterintuitive behavior, i.e. visiting the site during a rainstorm when logically one would stay indoors. Understanding the water flow takes timing, patience, and careful observation.

A recent visit suggests that though the sidewalk runoff may flow to the raingarden, runoff from the pavement flows towards the new fire station,

down this slope,

and into the fire station parking lot, largely bypassing the raingarden.

It puddles a couple inches deep,

then flows towards 206. Note the darker pavement on the left, which suggests that the parking lot is partially porous pavement, partially not.

The water then flows out of the parking lot and down a long grassy swale next to the road,

to another raingarden of sorts, before heading in a pipe under 206 and into Pettoranello Gardens, becoming part of Mountain Brook.

Note the two holes in the wall here, which had nothing flowing out of them even though there was still some rain. Hopefully the fire station's drainage system was checked to make sure water is flowing where it should.

Raingardens are wonderful planting opportunities, given the many species that appreciate the sunlight and periodic pulses of water that a raingarden provides. But if the raingarden isn't actually getting the runoff, the plantings may not survive, and the runoff won't be cleaned.

Redbuds bloom in a similar raingarden at Westminster Choir College that I adopted. Once the proper drainage is in place, the next question is who will maintain the plantings, given that nearly all maintenance crews are of the mow, blow, and go variety.