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.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Living a Republican Reality in a Democratic Town

(Note: written way back in pre-Coronavirus December)
Among the rewards of reading a real newspaper are those times when the articles and op-eds resonate one with another, creating a memorable portrait of our times. The Dec. 6 Princeton Packet had that resonance, giving a vivid portrait of how out of sync our journalistic conventions and culture are with the primary threat to a shared future.

In the Town Forum, the Packet consistently features environmental themes. Michele Byers captures the richness and beauty of nature, while Huck Fairman sounds the alarm about the climate crisis that is steadily destabilizing nature and civilization. Though Huck often tries mightily to highlight any positive developments he can find, his column on Dec. 6 is decidedly bleak in its depiction of the disconnect between urgency and action.

I live on a busy street in Princeton, and though it is a town dominated by the Democratic Party, the world I wake up to every day reflects a stubborn Republican denial of both the climate problem and its solution. Princeton is a town that recognizes that the burning of fossil fuels poses an existential threat, yet PSEG spent the summer digging up the streets to lay bigger pipes to pump more natural gas into our homes, while above ground the din of the internal combustion engine has only grown louder.

Similarly, though the Packet's Town Forum page reflects a newspaper aimed at a liberal audience, the rest of the paper's coverage largely denies the reality of a "now or never" urgency for action on the global warming emissions built into our lifestyles. Articles about lead contamination and vaping reflect how strong is our desire to protect our children's insides, even as we continue to radically alter that thin layer of atmosphere they will long inhabit after we're gone.

The front page article on Dec. 6 details all the additional school security and air conditioning being installed in our schools. Again, our children's security and comfort are given high priority, yet conspicuously missing is the question of how to power the air conditioners while miraculously meeting Princeton's stated goal to dramatically reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The Republican denial that permeates our largely Democratic community is further reflected in the "On the Road" column, which provides reviews of the latest automobiles. This is a throwback to newspapers I would read in the 1980s, before it was widely understood how big a threat the internal combustion engine poses to our future. The car featured in the Dec. 6 column gets 31 mpg on the highway--a gas consumption described as "not too shabby." My similarly mid-sized 1986 Toyota Camry got 40 mpg on road trips--more evidence that, after thirty years of understanding the threat, we continue to move backwards.

Completing the newspaper's portrait of our times was an obituary for a 96 year old veteran who like so many risked his life to help defeat totalitarianism in World War II. His role in that collective accomplishment filled him with pride for the rest of his long life. We praise his sacrifice, and call him a member of "the Greatest Generation." That term unfortunately suggests that our best days as a nation lie in the past, even as the climate crisis begs for collective action on a similar scale that would be every bit as heroic and rewarding. As we, on the front lines of the climate crisis, use our collective power to unintentionally create problems rather than intentionally solve them, we are deprived of the sort of pride and sense of accomplishment he deservedly felt.

While young climate activist Greta Thunberg was Time Magazine's "Person of the Year," carbon dioxide is the Molecule of the Century. Invisible, odorless, seemingly benign, it is a powerful player in our bodies and in nature's body all around us. Though carbon dioxide is essential to the functioning of our bodies and the planet, too much or too little becomes lethal. Its increasing concentration in the air and sea will likely determine our fate. Environmentalism tends to label chemicals as either good or bad, but our greatest threat comes from too much of a good thing. One statistic rarely mentioned in the news is that our combustion of underground fuels has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere by nearly 50%, a radical change in chemistry that our own bloodstreams could not survive.

Climate denial is a spectrum disorder. Nearly all of us to varying degrees shut out the reality of what's at stake so that we can fit in and get through the day. Greta's lack of denial stems in part from another spectrum "disorder" -- the aspergers syndrome that makes her incapable of distraction and conformity.

Parts of the Princeton Packet admirably call attention to the grave risks embedded in the status quo, while other parts continue on as if those risks don't exist. The contrasts in the newspaper reflect the disconnect all around us, as we show deep caring for our children while collectively sabotaging the world they will inherit.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Mercer County Begins Enforcing its Curbside Recycling Rules

It's still winter, yet change is in the air. On recycle day this past Monday, some bins were emptied while others were left untouched by the collection crew. Why? Because Mercer County, which administers Princeton's curbside recycling program, has begun enforcing its ban on various items it deems unrecyclable.

This caught a lot of homeowners by surprise, particularly those who habitually put their recyclables in plastic bags. The lack of enforcement in the past had led to widespread indifference by homeowners, who in addition to flouting the ban on plastic bags would leave at the curb unflattened boxes full of styrofoam, mercury-containing fluorescent lightbulbs, stuffed animals, whatever--all of which would until now dependably disappear into the maw of the recycling trucks.

There is some pleasure in seeing long-ignored rules finally being enforced, but the underlying message homeowners have long been sending is that they want their packaging to be recyclable. This is where the economy and an anti-regulatory mentality have let us down.

Capitalism has some positive traits, but it places emphasis on increasing consumption. To that end, marketing and engineering creativity is focused on designing packaging that will lure the consumer to buy the product. Once the purchase has been made, capitalism thinks its job done, and leaves it to government and the individual to deal with the resulting mess of packaging and the consumed product. That's the unacknowledged socialist (for lack of a better word) side of our economy, where the private profit of consumption leaves behind a shared collective burden of disposal.

Why, in this day and age, 50 years after the first Earthday, are manufacturers allowed to use an infinite variety of packaging without consideration for what can plausibly be recycled, composted, or safely burned for energy?

There is as well a lack of uniformity in the nation's recycling programs. A product can be sold country-wide, but each town, city and county has its own recycling program that may or may not be able to deal with a product's packaging. While Princetonians are being told that plastic bags clog the machinery used to separate recyclables at the recycling plant, some recycling programs, for instance in Cleveland Heights, actually require that all recyclables be put in plastic bags.

Such contradictions led me some years back to organize a visit to the recycling facility that sorts out our mixed recyclables. At the time, and likely still, the destination for our curbside recyclables was the Colgate Paper company, which despite its name accepts a broad range of recyclables. Adding to recycling's contradictions, the company accepts plastics #1-7, but Mercer County has long banned plastics #3-7 from our recycling stream. Over the years, I've made follow-up phone calls to the company, asking what materials really mess with their machinery or otherwise create inconvenience. The only item they would mention was long metal pipes, which you could imagine doing major mischief if they got caught in the myriad moving parts in separating machinery. They did say that plastics #3-7 often require stockpiling for long periods before a market can be found, but would not admit to having to haul non-recyclables to the landfill.

Why the contradiction between Mercer County's rules and those of the separating plant? My guess is that the plant offers to take a broader range of materials in order to serve as many businesses and governments in the area as possible, even though it may not wish to receive the more marginal materials.

Though the rules, and the stories told in an effort to motivate people to follow them, have their share of contradictions, enforcement is the most dependable form of education, since everyone--not only those who care--will suddenly need to follow the rules or deal with an unemptied bin at the end of recycling day. Education happens when there are consequences for behavior.

If the enforcement continues, we will no longer be able to dump on the collection crews teddy bears, lightbulbs, and whatever else we wish were recyclable. But capitalism's dumping on the public sector will continue. As long as they can get away with it, manufacturers will continue to lure us into buying a baffling complexity of materials that frustrate our desire to recycle and place an ever expanding burden on our governments and nature.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Dish Washing Song

Some people don't have dishwashing machines, or have old machines that moan and groan and rattle on forever. Some of us are drawn by habit to washing dishes by hand. Before Barack Obama became president, there was a profile of him and Michele at their home in Chicago. He was washing dishes, she was drying, and he was saying that he finds washing dishes relaxing.

The original three "H"'s of the 4-H club, which I discovered through some historical research, were "Head, Hand, and Heart." Some people get their best ideas while doing physical work with their hands. Before people had machines, they were using their hands a lot. We evolved so that our thoughts could roam and our hearts could sing while our hands were doing the work that needed to be done. Of course, it's best if the work is not overwhelming. Exhaustion has a diminishing effect on all that roaming and singing, but it could be said that now, if we're talking and our hands aren't preoccupied, then our hands are still trying one way or another to be a part of the show. Look at the politicians waving their hands around while they talk. Each has a unique style. Bernie is like a conductor, and the audience is the orchestra. There should be a debate where all the candidates wear aprons and wash dishes while they speak. Post-debate commentary could include ratings for how many dishes each candidate cleaned while describing their healthcare plan.

Everyone has their own way of hand-washing dishes. I used to fill a tub and put the dirty dishes in it, but finally I switched to a method that uses a minimum of water.

And sometimes it feels good to sing a tongue in cheek song adapted from a Christmas carol. This is my contribution to the great tradition of work songs. It's sung to the melody for Silver Bells, and goes over best with a crooning tone of voice, and an imagined choir of angels answering in the background (italicized lyrics).

Silverware, (silverware)
Silverware, (silverware)
There's silverware in ... the kitchen sink.

Clean it up. (clean it up)
Clean it up. (clean it up)
Soon you can do some... thing else.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Worm Bin Design

One of the best ways to dramatically slim down your home trash production, and reduce odors, is to collect food scraps in a container on the kitchen counter and then compost them in the yard. We've been doing this for years, and find it easy and satisfying to turn food scraps into fertilizer for the garden.

This past fall, Hilary Persky asked me to co-lead a neighborhood workshop on composting food scraps and leaves. After I showed neighbors how to build a "Wishing (the earth) Well", which combines a leaf corral with no-work, critter-proof composting of food scraps, host Tineke Thio showed us the worm bin that quickly turns her food scraps into rich compost and a liquid fertilizer called "tea" that's beneficial for houseplants.

I was impressed by the health of the worms and how they can cause us to rebrand our "foodwaste" as food for what could be considered a very wriggly pet. Though she made it look easy, I suspect there's a baseline of attention needed to keep the worms happy. She also said it's important NOT to give the worms onions, garlic, or citrus, which will cause them to flee. Thanks to Thio for her directions (below) for constructing a worm bin. From Tineke:
I learned everything I know about worms from this The Worm Book: (available at the local bookstore).

"You can build worm bins in various styles. The sketch below is a good cross section of the one I made. "Borrowed" it from this here blog.

You will need:

A pound of Red Wrigglers. I got mine from Uncle Jim.

Two tupperware bins, dark colour.

Scraps of window screen or tulle fabric

Some duct tape.

Some bricks for inside

Good whole-bottom support like 2 cinderblocks

Bottom bin:

Drill one 3/8 inch hole in the wall very close to the bottom.

Find a rubber stopper that will fit it (or install a tap if you want to get fancy).

Top bin:

Drill 1/4 inch holes in the bottom of the bin, in a Creative Pattern.

Cover bottom with window screen.


Drill / cut holes in the cover,

Cover inside with window screen, keep in place with duct tape.

(This part is different from the picture)


Put bottom bin on a raised platform like a stool, a cinderblock, or a mandarin orange box

Put 2-3 bricks in the bottom. These hold up the weight of the top bin.

Put the top bin on the bricks

Put a 2-inch layer of moistened peat moss in,

Add your worms

Add vegetable scraps

Add a 1-inch layer of peat moss

Put cover in place and wait a few days

If you have the second cover, you can put that on top, loosely, to keep the light out.

Feed weekly on alternate sides:

Dig a hole, tip in your veg scraps, cover them well with more peat moss if necessary. Coffee grounds and their shredded filters work well too. Do NOT feed citrus, onions or garlic, your worms will try to move out.

After a few weeks you can start harvesting the worm "tea"

Your houseplants or garden plants will be very happy.

Once a year, I harvest most of the worms for a new batch, and put the compost out in selected places in the yard. Also great for starting seedlings.

That's it, I think.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Burning Wood from Europe in Princeton

There are really only two sources of ethical energy in Princeton for powering our homes and vehicles, and both of them come from the sun that shines on our town. That solar energy can be collected by solar panels, or by plants, whether they be trees that store the energy in their wood, or crops that power people and livestock. Though solar panels are about 20 times more efficient than trees at capturing useable energy, the wood is still potentially useful for powering a portion of our lives. Alas, most of the harvest from Princeton's urban forest is ground up and carted away for composting outside of town, powering only the decomposers that quickly send much of the captured carbon back into the atmosphere. Might there be ways that wood could help Princeton trim its dependence on fracked natural gas, whose environmental downsides are becoming harder to ignore?

While Princeton is largely spurning its own harvest of wood, the local supermarket is selling firewood from Europe.

The label says the wood comes from an "Eco Forest," though it's hard to see what's eco about shipping firewood all the way across the Atlantic.

Another brand appears to come from Maryland, which is closer by. But all of these woods are kiln-dried, which likely means heating the wood with fossil fuels to kill any pests or diseases that might otherwise hitchhike in the wood.

There is some local firewood available, mostly through arborists like Wells Tree Service. Then there are people like me, who scavenge and split firewood left on the curb. Our woodstove is a treasured component of our winter heating. It's radiant heat is superior in comfort to the forced air heat of our furnace. It burns much more cleanly and efficiently than a fireplace, and could heat the whole house with its wonderful radiance. On a cold night, when the wood stove is going and the gas furnace has thankfully gone silent, we can feel for those hours what it would be like to liberate ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels. It's a nice feeling that can't be accessed by using wood imported from Europe.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Theater: Onstage Seniors -- Two Upcoming Performances

Catch one of these last two performances of this year's show: In or Out: Stories of Belonging and Exclusion:
Our McCarter Theater-based Onstage Seniors create documentary theater performances that explore the stories of our local community. In or Out: Stories of Belonging and Exclusion features stories performed by actors, based on real-life interviews. In or Out includes both humorous and moving accounts of the search for belonging, and the moments along the way when one feels rejected, excluded, accepted, or embraced.

Our ensemble members — all over 55 — perform in theaters, libraries, schools, and senior centers generating delight, insight, and affirmation about senior memories and experiences.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

What Does It Mean To Fight Climate Change?

Below is a letter to the editor that I wrote recently, prompted by a front page headline in a local paper. In addition to its other news coverage, the Town Topics covers local sports. As an environmentalist who is also a sports fan, I sometimes think that climate change is a (very serious) game where the scoreboard is locked in the basement. Sports and the stock market generate numbers in real time for all of us to see and react to. Numbers count just as much in climate change, whether we generate them personally or collectively, but these numbers have been traditionally hidden away, depriving us of the immediate feedback we need to be part of the game. 

Dear Editor,
It was good to see that fighting climate change made the front page of Town Topics a couple weeks ago [“Environmental Forum, Sustainable Princeton Fight Climate Change,” Oct. 23]. There is a common confusion, though, between talk and action. The urgency expressed at the Princeton Environmental Institute’s Environmental Forum about the need to shift rapidly away from fossil fuel dependence contrasted starkly with what we see on the streets and barren rooftops of Princeton. The most visible evidence is pointing in the wrong direction, as internal combustion vehicles swell in size and number, and PSEG digs up our streets to install new fossil fuel lines. If news of Princeton fighting climate change were real, it would tell us how many solar panels had recently been added to schools, homes, businesses, and parking lots. It would tell us how many more teachers were hired with money saved through energy conservation. We would see trees being strategically planted and trimmed to maximize their carbon absorption and minimize their conflict with solar panels.

Along with the charismatic climate scientist Stephen Pacala, the most inspiring speaker at the Environmental Forum was George Hawkins, who spoke unabashedly of how government agencies can be innovative and efficient, and how he had made Washington, D.C.’s water, and even its sewage, a source of pride. Sewage, it turns out, can heat buildings, generate electricity, and fertilize crops. Princeton’s own “biosolids,” enriched and ennobled by its many Nobel laureates, surely deserves a better fate than to be incinerated with vast doses of fossil fuel and carted off to a landfill.

Similarly, we continue to largely spurn the sunlight striking our rooftops and parking lots, and the solar energy embedded in wood and brush from our urban forest. Wood, I learned at another University event, has an energy density 17 times that of lithium ion batteries. The greatest waste is of our own resourcefulness and adaptability, which could be summoned to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels rather than to merely react to worsening disasters.

Once people become acutely aware of their own unintentional but very real contribution to the radicalization of weather, then they begin seeking ways to extract themselves and their community from that morally-challenged role as dystopia’s lackey. Turning away from fossil fuels means turning towards the nature that resides within us and all around us. What Hawkins achieved in D.C. is an opening of minds, an awakening of creativity to take advantage of all the renewable gifts of nature — physical, chemical, biological — that have long been spurned.

Fighting climate change — a collectively created problem — requires a spirit, unity of purpose, and an attention to numbers that most people only experience in sports. For example, to track our progress, our monthly utility bills would show us five-year trends in our individual and community energy and water consumption. We would be provided the same information for our schools and government. We would take pride in producing more energy and consuming less. Community progress would spur us to do even more as individuals. That’s when we’ll know we’re really fighting climate change.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Teaching a Teenager to Ride a Bike at Westminster's "Learning Grounds"

Earlier this fall, a family from Buenos Aires came for a visit, and at some point it became known that the son, Mariano, had somehow reached the age of 16 without having learned to ride a bike. Princeton seemed the perfect place to rectify that situation, and so he and I headed over to nearby Westminster Choir College, bike in tow.

It was funny, as we walked towards Westminster on a weekend afternoon, to see kids and adults riding by on their bikes. They suddenly looked like showoffs. One realizes that what we take for granted is really a special skill--a kind of mainstreamed circus act.

Youtube videos on how to teach an adult to ride recommend using a sidewalk or other paved surface, but my preference for passing along this life-transforming skill is a smoothly sloping lawn. My younger daughter learned on this slope at Westminster Choir College, though she had the advantage of being much younger, with less far to fall if things went awry.

Videos offer some basic tips. Set the seat low so they can use their feet like trainer wheels. Have them look ahead, not down, and get comfortable using the brakes to control speed. Don't bother with the pedals until they've gained some stability coasting with legs hanging down to the sides.

I was surprised at how satisfying it is to mentor someone, to pass a life-changing skill from one generation to the next. My role was to offer some pointers, then watch as he would head off down the slope, gaining in balance and confidence each time.

We were on "learning grounds", a special spot overseen by proud Williamson Hall, with beautiful cloud patterns against the glorious evening sky, a half moon, and then the beauty of a bicyclist-in-the-making heading off into the distance, each time more on his own, a metaphor for how the mentored gain independence and ultimately go forth into the world. In this case, Mariano will take this learning with him back to a distant home, to finally join his friends on bike rides in Buenos Aires.

The advantages of learning to ride a bike in Princeton became even more apparent when Mariano had gained sufficient skill to head out on an expedition with his father. We took the big loop that begins with the towpath along the DR Canal, then headed back towards Princeton on the bikepath next to Quaker Road, passing the Updike Farm, Princeton Friends School, the Stonybrook Meeting House,

then stopped at the Princeton Battlefield, where Mariano translated the story of the great victory for his father.

We came next to the backside of the Institute for Advanced Study, with its brainy tradition beginning with Flexner, Veblen and Einstein.

For Mariano, a new world of self-propelled mobility was opening up. For me, it was a chance to pass along the benefits of a sort of mentoring that I received briefly in my youth, on the learning grounds surrounding another great institution--Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, longtime home of the University of Chicago's astronomy department. There, a grad student from Canada named Mike Marlboro taught me how to kick a football. It doesn't sound like much, and certainly didn't prove to be the ticket to new worlds, but something in his unrushed manner and tone of voice made me--a little kid among intimidating adults--feel worthwhile. I would watch with amazement at the beautiful spiral and arc of the ball as he made it soar into the sky, and then he'd show me how he did it, with a patience that stretched to the stars. He may have only mentored me a few times, and yet I've felt a lifetime of gratitude for the way he stepped out of his adult world to accept me as I was, and help me along my way.

The ground, I like to think, remembers the learning that happens upon it. Like the Mercer Oak that is said to have witnessed the Battle of Princeton during the Revolutionary War, ground gains in meaning for what it witnesses. As I write this, the future of Westminster Choir College is in jeopardy, and after 120 years the University of Chicago pulled out of Yerkes Observatory, turning that proud learning grounds into what feels now more like a cemetery. A distinguished edifice overlooking expansive green--our lives are aided and ennobled by such places, and I'd like to think future lives will be, too.

Another post about mentoring Mariano, When the Body Teaches the Mind, describes the process of teaching him to chop wood.