Friday, October 04, 2019

How to Easily Reduce Water Use

If you go to the American Water website and log into your account, you'll find under the tab "usage" a link called "usage overview". Click on that and it takes you to a graph like the one below. Click on the "Neighborhood Average Usage" box in the upper right and a green line will appear that compares your water consumption to the local average.

Below is what ours looks like. We use about 2000 gallons per month, which is less than a sixth of the local average. How do we manage this? We're empty nesters for one, but it's mostly a matter of valuing water, and understanding that every time you turn on the tap, you're consuming elaborately treated water that was pumped 20 miles uphill to Princeton, and that every bit of the water that goes down the drain then has to be elaborately and expensively treated at the Stonybrook wastewater treatment plant on River Road. That understanding makes us less cavalier about water use. Some easy strategies for reducing consumption are listed below the graph.

  • Resilient native landscaping, and mulch to prevent the soil from drying out
  • Get in the habit of turning the water off when washing hands, brushing teeth, i.e. don't let water run straight from faucet to drain. 
  • Shorter showers, or even "Navy" showers (turn water off while lathering up)
  • low flow toilets (people liked to make fun of them, but they flush better than the inefficient older style); lots of good brands. Ours are American Standards available at the local hardware.
  • Get in the habit of using cold water for most tasks, rather than waiting for the hot water to arrive at the faucet. 
  • Front load washing machines use a minimum of water
  • See below for way to minimize water use when washing dishes.
  • I once learned that your annual sewer bill is calculated based on your water usage in the winter (likely Jan-March), since they want to charge you only for water that goes down the sewer, not the water you use in summer to irrigate your yard. Therefore, winter is an especially good time to hone your water conservation habits, since it will save you money on your sewer bill year-round. 
  • Adjust your water heater (somewhere in your basement) so that it only heats the water slightly beyond the hottest water you need. Many water heaters are needlessly overheating water, which is not only wasteful and expensive, but also leads to lots of fiddling with faucet handles to mix in just the right amount of cold water. Ideally (though no use of fossil fuels is ideal), you should be able to turn the hot water on for a shower--no cold at all--and be comfortable.
  • A novel approach to hand-washing dishes: One doesn't need standing water in the sink. Moisten the dishes while stacking them in the sink, to soften the dirt. That way, nature does most of the work. Put some dish soap on a sponge, then with the water turned off, wash some dishes and set them on the counter. Turn water on to rinse that batch, using the rinse water to further moisten the unwashed dishes in the sink. Then turn the water off and wash some more. This way, no time is wasted turning the water on and off to rinse each separate dish. Sounds elaborate, but quickly becomes second nature, and avoids having water running directly from faucet to drain--the ultimate in pointless consumption. Also, try using only cold water. Water that isn't hot enough to kill germs just makes them stronger. Hot water may be needed if there's grease, but otherwise is not essential. Best time to start the habit of using cold water is in the summer, but the habit once established can often continue through the winter.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Funkiest Recycling Containers Ever at Princeton University Football Stadium

People celebrate Princeton for many things. Computers had some of their beginnings here, as did football apparently, which is now celebrating its 150th anniversary at the Princeton University stadium.

I wish that, for this grand occasion, they might have sprung for some new recycling containers to adorn the stadium's fine interior. Instead, the stainless steel containers that were dysfunctional ten years ago are even moreso now. It's more accurate to call them anti-recycling containers.

Back when I was trying to improve recycling, I devoted a whole blog to critiquing public recycling containers, so few of which are well designed. Walk down the stadium's interior corridors--a nice sort of indoor/outdoor experience--and you'll see some of the most confusing labeling imaginable.

This one says "recycling", but the "bottles-cans" label is crossed out.

Two of this one's labels suggest recycling, but the third label says "trash." Does one go with the majority?

There are two basic rules for successful recycling: Pair up the trash and recyclables containers, because people won't take the time to go searching for the right container. And create a clear visual distinction between the two containers. Otherwise, people throw stuff wherever.

Here's a particularly helpful post from more than ten years ago that describes the recycling situation at Jadwin Gym, and how it could be easily and inexpensively improved. It was written back when I was contacting Princeton University's athletic department, wanting to help them improve their stadium recycling. We made some progress, but in the end, the lack of motivation for maintenance staff ultimately undoes any improvements initiated from above.

A better design for a recycling container is this one, in the minority at the stadium, shaped like the bottles you're supposed to put in it.

Another good design has been used in Princeton's parks for many years. It won't win awards for beauty, but actually works. The trash and recycling receptacles are paired and of contrasting appearance. It isn't expensive, and it really isn't hard.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

How to Reduce Princeton's Pollution of Local Waterways

It's been heartening to see Sustainable Princeton alerting residents to the dangers posed to local waterways by the common practice of tossing loose leaves and other organic matter into the streets. Yardwaste often sits for weeks in the street, decomposing and releasing nutrients into stormdrains connected to Carnegie Lake. Three SP mass emails have pointed out how the nutrients in leaves contribute to algae blooms. Nutrient runoff also reduces the dissolved oxygen aquatic life needs to survive.

Many people probably think that by putting leaves on the streets, they are contributing material that will laudably be turned into fine compost at the ecological center. Though it's true that the composting center makes fine compost, there are some environmental downsides. Fossil fuels are burned to collect the leaves, and even the industrial scale composting process is fuel-intensive. Exporting organic matter makes one's soil less absorbent of rainfall, adding to downstream flooding. In addition, the combined collection of leaves and brush from Princeton and Lawrenceville has overwhelmed the 5 acre composting center's capacity.

It's easy for most residents to avoid putting leaves out in the street, by using various methods described on SP's Sustainable Landscaping webpage, yet these "leave the leaves" strategies are unlikely to be widely adopted, for a host of reasons.

While Sustainable Princeton is calling on residents to utilize their leaves on their properties, Princeton's current collection policy has had the unfortunate effect of encouraging unlimited purging of organic matter from private properties. Rules described on the town website, designed to abide by state laws limiting organic pollution in the streets, have proven difficult to enforce. The result is that residents and their landscapers throw leaves and other yard residue out into the streets without regard to complex collection schedules. This highly visible behavior, often in violation of state law and local ordinance, is then emulated by neighbors, until the least environmentally friendly behavior becomes the norm. No amount of education can overcome town practices that lead to unlimited purging.

While investing heavily in loose pickups, the Princeton Public Works Department has shown little interest in offering residents better options for containerizing leaves. The only option currently is to squeeze the leaves into single use yardwaste bags. Leaf piles are mostly air, and a surprising quantity of leaves can be compressed into the paper bags, but they are an imperfect means of containerization. The bags get wet in the rain, are unstable and difficult to drag to the curb.

In addition, the town only collects bagged yardwaste for 17 weeks each year. During the large gap in service during the summer, the streetscape is adorned with the huddled masses of uncollected leaf bags that must wait until October for collection to resume. The bags also hide their contents, which may include forbidden materials like soil and rocks.

There is also a disconnect in people's perceptions, in which residents seem unaware that the pile of yardwaste they place next to or in the street might spoil the curb appeal of an otherwise well-groomed yard. Residents on busy streets often place their loose yardwaste on the extension, which then kills the grass, further marring the Princeton streetscape.

Since Princetonians pay high taxes and yardwaste collection is one of the most visible services provided in return, the only solution I know of is to begin offering residents a better option for containing the yardwaste. For a minimal investment, the town could augment its current bagged leaf collection by providing compost carts of the sort used widely elsewhere in the country. These have large capacity, covers and wheels. Distributed to interested residents, for a onetime fee or for free, compost carts can containerize the majority of leaves and other yardwaste currently being tossed loose in the streets throughout spring and summer. In combination with techniques like mulch mowing that reduce the quantity of leaves that might otherwise be piled in the street, compost carts can play an important role in the fall season as well.

Collection of containerized leaves in compost carts in bags could either be increased to weekly through most of the year, or the 17 current pickups could be made every other week rather than weekly.

With better containerization options, achieved with minimal investment by the town, public works officials will have more reason to expect residents to abide by local and state law, since residents can begin using compost carts to store their yardwaste until pickup day, rather than making illegal piles in the street. Town streets will become more attractive, less hazardous for bicyclists, and less polluting of local waterways. Ultimately, the town may be able to reduce the expensive loose collections as containerization provides more frequent and consistent service to residents.

In addition, compost carts will enhance the capacity of collection crews to enforce regulations. The carts reveal their contents when emptied into the truck, so that any unallowed materials can be seen, and a notice of violation easily placed on the cart. If carts have scannable identification codes, then notices of violation can be sent electronically by email. Currently, if residents put banned materials loose in the street, like grass clippings, the only practical option for enforcement is to leave the banned materials uncollected, to continue rotting and releasing even more nutrients into local waterways.

Past attempts to make compost carts available to residents have been stymied by a tendency of decision-makers to be quickly swayed by objections, whether valid or not. The compost carts are improbably characterized as being both too large for residents to store and too small to hold sufficient amounts of yardwaste. One official questioned the durability of the carts. Though it's useful to vet any new service, there needs to be a sympathetic entity willing to vet the objections as well, keeping in mind the many benefits. Why, we must ask, would compost carts not work in NJ when they are widely used elsewhere in the country?

Most importantly, compost carts will be an educational tool to shift habits. Standing on the curb on collection day, one day a week, a compost cart provides a strong visual cue to neighbors that containerization is the behavior to emulate.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Jazz Fast at Palmer Square

Yesterday was a beautiful day for a Jazz Feast, but that annual event at Palmer Square slipped into history a couple years ago. In its place is Music Fest, whose program this year looked longingly backwards towards bygone eras of jazz and rock. Gone is the mix of young jazz talent and veteran performers. I listened briefly to the one jazzish group on the bill. A crooner imitated Frank Sinatra well in voice, and the band dutifully played down classic arrangements by Neal Hefti and Nelson Riddle. There was not one solo, just a trip down memory lane. I felt sad and moved on. All this sentimentalism made me want to go back to a not so distant past when Palmer Square was generously bringing us jazz that had a past, present and a future.

Just down Nassau Street, I stopped at the native prairie growing above the renovated underground portions of the Princeton University library. It was planted in homage to Betsy Stockton. Once the slave of a university president, she was freed and went on to found a school for African American students in Princeton, and helped found the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.

The prairie, a complex planting, is being maintained well by the university, and pollinators were feasting on the asters, while I, a jazz lover, was in fast mode.

In more ways than jazz, in the past there was a future. We honor the past by looking forward as well as back. For jazz fasters in Princeton, outdoor jazz may start blooming in April, not September, and be on the gown side of the town/gown Nassau Street divide. Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is doing great things as director of Jazz at Princeton University, including the second annual jazz festival on campus, April 18, 2020.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Stand Up to Save Westminster Choir College

All members of the Princeton community are being urged to stand up for the future of one of our great educational institutions, Westminster Choir College. There's an open meeting tonight, September 10, 7pm at Nassau Presbyterian Church, organized by the Westminster Foundation. Those unable to go or get in can watch the event streamed live on the Foundation's website.

As a neighbor, I find the sequence of events puzzling. Rider University acquired Westminster Choir College, invested heavily in renovating and augmenting the facilities, with a new parking lot and performance hall, only to now seek to abandon it all by moving the choir college to apparently nonexistent facilities on the main campus in Lawrenceville.


Perhaps an early sign of impermanence came five years ago, when they built a performance hall with a roof perfectly positioned to collect renewable energy, then didn't install the solar panels. In that sense, threats to one of our great local institutions are a part of a larger ongoing threat to life as we know it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Ideal Integration of Trees and Solar Panels Remains the Exception Rather Than the Rule

Why is Princeton not covering its homes with solar panels? There's always an excuse. The roof may face the wrong direction, or it's shaded by trees, or the shingles are too old, or the owners are just there for a few years and see solar panels as something longterm. Meanwhile, our houses remain part of the climate problem when they could be part of the solution. Each person's decision seems minor, while the collective impact threatens our future. Solar is essentially free now, but the lack of a strong community call to action has made it hard for most of us to get beyond excuses.

These three photos--taken in different directions from the same spot--tell a story indicative of our curious response to climate change's urgency. The first shows an ideal integration of trees and solar panels. The next two show how investment in the rest of the neighborhood is shunning solar in favor of additional investment in fossil fuel delivery.

The first photo shows the perfect way to combine trees and solar panels to give a house optimal cooling and energy production. The house faces south, so it has the perfect orientation for panels on the roof. But how about those trees in front? Well, they are a kind of tree that doesn't get very high--some sort of crab apple or ornamental cherry perhaps, the kind that stay low or can easily be trimmed back to keep them from shading the panels. Though not as large as an oak or maple, they nonetheless are providing the many benefits of a tree. They are evaporating water through their leaves, which cools the air around them, and their roots and branches are sequestering carbon they take in from the air. Many native tree species would work well in this niche: redbud, flowering dogwood, hawthorn, red buckeye, musclewood, pawpaw.

Though the trees aren't high enough to shade the roof, the solar panels are providing a complete and effective shading, while also generating renewable electricity. Smaller trees are safer than big ones around a house, and cheaper to remove if they need to be taken down and replaced. So there's a lot to like about this setup.

Meanwhile, look down the street and you see a long line of houses also perfectly oriented, and without any trees getting in the way. Perhaps because I grew up on WWII movies, they look to me like battleship row--structures that could be defending our country by generating renewable energy. And yet they stand idle. The first one there, with the metal roof, was reportedly designed with solar panels in mind, yet they were never installed.

Solar panels on a roof are one way of saying the future matters, that we need as a people to become producers as well as consumers. In economics, sucking fossil fuels from the ground is called "production," but it's not. It's extraction. It gives us present comfort and mobility, but takes from the earth and takes from our future. America will truly start "making stuff again" when our houses begin producing as much energy as they consume.

That big metal plate in the street in this third photo shows that not only are most houses not producing energy, but the infrastructure for natural gas delivery is being updated and improved. PSEG is installing higher pressure lines that, according to one of the workers, will prevent moisture from infiltrating. PSEG presents this nearly $2 billion investment as good news, emphasizing that old, potentially leaky pipes are being replaced. But the NJ Sierra Club came out against it. Most of the money appears to be going to expanding fossil fuel distribution at a time when radical reductions are needed.

People emulate their neighbors. If enough people get solar panels installed, others will think it's the thing to do. Trees and solar together, like that first house--an obvious solution remains the exception rather than the rule.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Another Summer of Messy Streets and Ordinance Violations Begging for a Solution

We have a little dog named Leo, and though he didn't seem very interested in the solar eclipse two years ago, he does take an enduring interest in walking the streets of Princeton,

which gives me as longtime designated dogwalker the opportunity to update my ongoing report on the state of streets in our fair town.

Frequently, not just in the fall but almost year-round, the streets are lined with piles large and small of yardwaste, detracting from whatever beauty residential neighborhoods might have.

The state of New Jersey long ago made clear a preference for containerized yardwaste. Page 71 of New Jersey's "Model Ordinances" recommendations for municipalities states (emphasis added):
The owner or occupant of any property, or any employee or contractor of such owner or occupant engaged to provide lawn care or landscaping services, shall not sweep, rake, blow or otherwise place yard waste, unless the yard waste is containerized, in the street. If yard waste that is not containerized is placed in the street, the party responsible for placement of yard waste must remove the yard waste from the street or said party shall be deemed in violation of this ordinance.
This makes it sound like Princeton's program of loose yardwaste collection is completely out of step with state guidelines, but then the state provides a bit of latitude. Under Section III: Yardwaste Collection, the state's recommended town ordinance reads:
Sweeping, raking, blowing or otherwise placing yard waste that is not containerized at the curb or along the street is only allowed during the seven (7) days prior to a scheduled and announced collection, and shall not be placed closer than 10 feet from any storm drain inlet. Placement of such yard waste at the curb or along the street at any other time or in any other manner is a violation of this ordinance. 
Given the state's clear preference for keeping streets free of yardwaste, and an ordinance that limits the time any yardwaste can sit on the street to one week, what is Princeton's collection schedule? Regard below the complex schedule for yardwaste pickups that Princetonians are supposed to scrutinize and time their gardening with. Note that there's a 3-6 week gap between pickups in the summer. That means that residents have no way to legally dispose of yardwaste for many weeks. What happens is that residents throw yardwaste in the streets anyway, in violation of state and local law.

Further complicating disposal and collection, residents are asked not to mix leaves and brush at the curb. Brush is used to make woodchip mulch. A good mulch lasts a long time, but if leaves are mixed in with the wood, the ground up mulch breaks down too fast.

What is a resident supposed to do with non-woody yardwaste (called "leaves" in the schedule) from May through September, when no pickups are scheduled? Below is a collection of photos that provide an answer, taken along a two-block stretch of Linden Lane and Ewing Street. Essentially, the streets become a storage area for leaves and other herbaceous materials from the garden, mixed in with a few sticks.

The infrequent collections mean that state and local laws are regularly being violated, and the yardwaste that finally gets collected is likely contaminating the brush composting process at the Lawrenceville composting center. The town's collection program seems out of sync with resident's gardening habits, and makes it very hard to adhere to state and local law. Princeton is not the only New Jersey town that struggles with this problem, which has only increased over the years.

How many residents along a two block stretch currently lack a good way to legally dispose of yardwaste during the summer? Here's a count:

2nd pile








10th (Piling leaves/brush loose on the lawn kills the grass)







This appears to be mostly brush, but lots of leaves mixed in.

17th - piled too close to the stormdrain. Containerization would avoid this violation of ordinance.


19th -- This one includes a flower bouquet.


21st -- another violation that could be avoided by containerization



24th -- a mix of wood and herbaceous yardwaste.

25th -- containerization of non-woody yardwaste ("leaves") would avoid not only the clogging of the stormdrain but also the unsightly scar in the grass where a pile of yardwaste had sat too long.

One of the piles above later got grass clippings added to it. The town forbids putting grass clippings out for collection, because their high nutrient content could pollute local waterways, but some homeowners do it anyway.

And the fall's first pile of leaves in the street, blocking half the lane, in mid-August. These are probably leaves from a sycamore. Some species of trees, susceptible to this or that disease, tend to drop some leaves in the summer. The town's schedule doesn't have these leaves being picked up until October.

In the past, I've suggested that the town make large compost carts available to residents so that they can containerize much of their yardwaste and put it out on the curb for one of the weekly pickups. Nearly all of the piles shown above would easily fit into a large compost cart, so that they could be stored by the resident out of sight, rather than marring the streetscape for weeks.

These compost carts, widely and effectively used elsewhere in the country, have in Princeton been uncharitably described as either too small to hold sufficient yardwaste to make a difference, or too large for residents to store on their property. Why, when they are widely used elsewhere, would they somehow be both too large and too small for Princetonians?

In the meantime, our streets remain messy much of the year, with numerous violations of state and local ordinances. For gardeners who don't want to have a compost pile or leaf corral, there needs to be a convenient way to store and legally dispose of yardwaste.