Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Spiders--The Energy Detectives

Here's a post for all those seeking validation for having delayed deep cleaning of the house, thereby increasing home biodiversity and allowing some unexpected species to join your Domestic Energy Reduction Team.

Websites like (EnergyStar and ThisOldHouse) tell you that houses lose a lot of energy through leaks in the top floor ceiling. Light fixtures, ceiling fans, attic fan louvres, smoke detectors that run off house current rather than batteries--all can provide small openings for your heated air to escape into the attic. I've tried using incense to find these leaks (the smoke would supposedly show where the air is escaping), but the smoke is hard to see. An unexpected ally in a less than perfectly cleaned home turns out to be spiders. They seem only to build webs where there's airflow. Ceiling fixtures that are tight don't have them; ceiling fixtures that are leaking air into the attic do. Once you find the leaks, you can follow the directions on the websites to plug them up.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Recycling in Schools--Lessons Learned

If you're trying to improve recycling in your workplace, these lessons apply whether it be a school, university, business, library, restaurant or any other building. They were learned during a mostly successful four-month effort to restart recycling in Princeton's district schools.


The only way to know whether a building is actually recycling is to check the bins out back, where they are picked up by the waste management service. The bins may be nonexistent, completely empty, filled with contaminants or, though this is less likely, actually filled with the intended recyclables. For optimal evidence, find out when pickup day is and check the day before.


Get everyone on board, including administration, teachers, custodial staff and kids. A message that recycling matters, whether from above or from colleagues, has to be repeated many times for busy people to take heed and change habits.


If someone in each building with passion for recycling is deputized by the leadership, the program has a much greater chance of succeeding and lasting.


Unless the custodians are really committed to making recycling work, it's better if they play a minimal role in the process. Usually this means having a rollout bin not far from offices and/or classrooms that employees/students can take their recyclables to. Custodians then need only roll the bins outside for pickup. In cafeterias, custodians can play an important role in encouraging and monitoring recycling.


People won't pause to read labels. There has to be an immediate recognition of what a container is for. It's best to try for the same color scheme people use locally for their residential curbside recycling.


There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what's recyclable, so it may take some digging to get accurate information. In New Jersey, that means checking with the county government. (Note: If you check your hauler's website, they may have a more up to date list than the local government.) Chances are they have the information in both picture and text that can be printed out from a website. There is likely no difference between what is recyclable residentially and in the workplace. Post the information, particularly the picture, throughout the building, particularly above recycling receptacles. Misinformation reduces the quantity and quality of recyclables.


Any solitary recycling container quickly becomes contaminated with trash. This is a very common error. Most people will throw trash in whatever receptacle is nearby. Whether it be an event, a cafeteria or an office, make sure people have a choice by putting recycling and trash containers side by side, with a visible difference between the two.


Don't allow custodians to use black plastic bags. Transparent ones make it much easier to monitor whether recyclables are getting thrown out with the trash. Opaque plastic liners on recycling containers can also cover up the container's identifying color, making it look like a trash can.


Even when recyclables make it to the proper bin behind the building, they are often left inside a plastic bag. Plastic bags are contaminants in any recycling bin. When custodians put plastic bags on recycling containers, chances are greater that the contents will simply be thrown out with the trash.


Last but by far not least, have someone in charge of regularly checking the bins behind the building the day before scheduled pickup. This is the only way to know how much is getting recycled and the level of contamination. Without this information, the feedback loop is broken. Recycling is a collaborative enterprise involving everyone in a building. Negative results serve to cut through illusions, and positive results can be a source of pride.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Green Home and Garden Tour

Information and a map for this Saturday's free tour can be found by going to and clicking on Nov. 17 on the calendar.
My backyard is one of the stops on the tour. For anyone wishing to overcome procrastination on multiple backyard projects, there's nothing like periodically inviting the public in to have a look.
I'm calling my stop on the tour "Conservation Without Deprivation". It will feature varied low-cost strategies to lower the carbon footprint of a home, garden and community. Small, ongoing changes in landscape and lifestyle can yield big results.

  • Solar living without solar panels
  • Energy monitors to help identify unnecessary energy consumption
  • Manipulating rainwater runoff for a drier basement and greener garden
  • Gardening without fertilizer and (mostly) without weeds
  • No-work composting
  • “Heron-Certified” miniponds (a heron came by one day to eat the goldfish)
  • Low energy, non-toxic ways to battle invasions of bamboo and ivy
  • Integrating autumn leaves into the backyard landscape

Monday, October 29, 2007

Resurrecting Recycling at Local Schools

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with recycling at any institution, be it a school, university, library or business. People can think recycling is going on, when in fact all recyclables are ending up in the dumpster.

So much can go wrong because, for recycling to work, so much has to go right. Everyone needs to know what's recyclable and what's not, and act on that knowledge. The containers in the building need to be strategically placed and color coded, and then the recyclables have to miraculously make the journey all the way to the big containers behind the building.

Anywhere along the line, the system can break down. Indifference is contagious. Idealism quickly turns to cynicism when a conscientious employee finds out that his or her carefully sorted recyclables are getting thrown away by the custodian.

Recycling is mandated in the state of New Jersey
, but from what I've seen, effective recycling is a rarity in buildings and at public and private events. To be successful, recycling requires participation by everyone. Everyone is responsible for the outcome, which is to say no one is. The cumulative effect of insignificant-seeming acts by insignificant-feeling people determines the result.

Adding to the problem, beyond widespread indifference, is what seems to be a cultural taboo against checking the rollout bins and dumpsters behind buildings. There is no other way of telling what recyclable "product" a building is producing. This is basic quality control--something we expect to be done with every other commodity in commerce, yet shun when it comes to recycling.

As you can see by the above photo from the high school dumpster, a lot has been going wrong. Cardboard, bottles, aluminum cans--all were getting tossed in with the trash when a few of us sought to resurrect a recycling program that had been stopped altogether through the summer.


When recycling was reinstituted in September, one thing immediately started going right. The custodians mostly do a good job of recycling cardboard.

Other materials, like cans, bottles, juice boxes and paper, are also now getting recycled consistently at two of the four elementary schools--Riverside and Little Brook--thanks to more than one hundred emails between school administrators, staff and a particularly persistent community volunteer, and most importantly a few passionate teachers who have helped institute a program in which the kids carry recyclables from each classroom to central rollout bins, and the custodians help monitor the kids' recycling during lunchtime.

Other than custodial supervision of recycling at lunchtime, the program at the schools aims to take custodians out of the picture as much as possible. The key custodians are those that work after hours, unsupervised, and for them, recycling is extra work. Since many people are careless, the custodians frequently encounter a lot of trash mixed in with recyclables. Who can blame the custodians for not wanting to sort through someone else's trash?


As of late November, there is no recycling of bottles/cans/milkjugs at Community Park Elementary, and there has been no news as to how Johnson Park is doing.
At the high school and middle school, the situation is particularly challenging, since the kids and teachers don't stay in one room all day, and so no one is responsible for any one room. The two schools have different problems. Though some recycling of bottles and cans is happening at the middle school, there is none at the high school, despite recycling receptacles in the cafeteria. Five rollout bins stand behind the school, ready for bottles and cans, and each week they are empty, except for an occasional black plastic bag with unwashed cans from the kitchen. The bag is a contaminant.

Despite the hundred-plus emails buzzing around, there has been zero recycling of paper at the middle school all fall (paper recycling is reportedly going to begin after Thanksgiving), and next to none at the high school. The bin in the picture shows shredded paper, still in a plastic bag, which is a contaminant. This week, however, for the first time, a "Paper Only" bin was completely filled with mixed paper, loose, unshredded, with no plastic bags. Thanks likely goes to the high school's student environmental group, which has been working to overcome the entrenched institutional realities and perceptions that make recycling such a challenge.

Past personal experience suggests that there is no recycling going on at school events, like school picnics or Back To School Nights. If any recycling containers are present, they are typically unpaired with trash bins, insuring that they will be highly contaminated with trash, which in turn insures that their contents will be tossed in the trash dumpster by the custodians.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Energy Consumption of Various Appliances

If you’re trying to reduce energy use at home or at the office, one of the handiest aids is a Kill-a-Watt. There are other similar devices on the market, but this is the most widely known. You can use it to measure how many watts most any plug-in device is using in your home. Since electricity makes no sound, most people are in the dark about what is consuming electricity in the house at any particular time. Though not available in retail stores for some reason, the device can be purchased via the internet for about $25.

Plug your computer, toaster, various power strips, TV and so forth into it and you’ll undoubtedly find some unexpected energy drains. If you leave the appliance plugged into the Kill a Watt for a couple weeks, it will give you the total energy consumed in that time period, which will provide a good sense of how much the appliance uses per year.

Here’s what I learned by using it:


My thin-screen computer and All-in-1 printer use much more energy than the ones they replaced. In other words, as the need to reduce our carbon footprints becomes ever more pressing, many of us are unwittingly switching to the electronic equivalents of SUVs.

Dell PC (newer, with thin screen): 150 watts total

Dell PC (older, with big bloated screen): 35 watts total (50 watts when booting or with certain websites)

Mac Desktop (2003): 50 watts


Old HP printer: Zero watts when on but not in use

Newer All-in-One HP printer/scanner/fax/copier: 19 watts when on but not in use, 8 watts when turned off.


Old TV: 45 watts

New TV: Holding off on that one, but likely to be a big increase. A thin screen similar in size to our old 19" TV uses a similar amount of energy, so the new models are slim in looks only.


It's called a dehumidifier, and it runs and runs. Mine is an Energy Star model, but that doesn't keep it from drawing what averages out to a constant draw of three or four hundred watts during the summer, and that's with it's thermostat set at the highest (70%) humidity level. A lower setting would cause it to run even more. Multiply that consumption rate by all the houses with basements in NJ, and you have a major contributor to energy demand, and therefore global warming. It may be worth looking into whether a ventilation system using fans would achieve adequate results, simultaneously helping to reduce any risk of radon accumulation. Another measure is to make sure the ground slopes away from the house, and that downspouts discharge well away from the foundation, to reduce the amount of moisture seeping through the basement walls from the soil.


My refrigerator uses 170 watts when the motor is running. To my surprise, it can occasionally use far more when it is dead silent. Whenever the defroster kicks in, its energy consumption jumps to 630 watts. Not much to be done about that, except to minimize the time the door is open, and maybe check the settings to make sure it's not running colder than it needs to. One thing to look for inside the frig is the switch that "reduces exterior moisture". This is a heating element that's supposed to keep the door from sweating. I turned it off, didn't notice any sweating, and thereby avoided the constant draw of 7 watts. The light bulb in the frig also produces considerable heat when the door is open.

The DSL modem and router draw 9 watts combined. The TV/DVD/VCR draw 5 watts combined when not in use. Plugging these, along with printer and other computer peripherals into power strips that can be turned off reduces overnight consumption by about 30 watts. You can buy power strips that turn off peripherals automatically when the computer is turned off. I saw these on, but have yet to try them.


That's what they say about how comparatively expensive it is to heat anything with electricity. That little toaster oven on the kitchen counter, for instance, uses 1400 watts when on, nearly half of what the central air conditioner uses when it's cooling the whole house. Fortunately, toast is a quick operation. The hairdryer uses between 400 and 1500 watts, depending on the setting. The Kill-A-Watt wouldn't measure the electric clothes dryer's energy use, which turned out to be a mind-altering 3700 watts when measured with a whole house energy monitor called T.E.D. For comparison, a fluorescent light bulb uses 15 watts.


The Kill-a-Watt has its limitations. It would not measure the microwave oven, which apparently uses more electricity than the Kill-a-Watt is designed to handle. As it turns out, the microwave uses 1900 watts, not bad considering how quickly it heats things.


Vacuum cleaner: 1000

3-Way Lamp: 50-150 (quickly replaced with a one-way switch and a 23 watt flourescent)

Old stereo: 30-60, depending on volume

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Gutter Upkeep, or Pro-Activity for Amateurs

The word "upkeep" may well have had its origin in the high-altitude art of keeping gutters from spontaneously turning into downspouts. If they aren't kept up, they fall down, which is what happened to the rental next door. People don't naturally turn their attention to the condition of their gutters, but thanks to the inspiration of my neighboring landlord's neglect, I was moved to take action on my own.

Most likely what happened next door was that autumn's first falling leaves clogged the gutter, rainwater filled them up, and the resultant weight pulled the old nails loose from the fascia board. So I've been spending some quality time replacing every other old nail on my gutters with a screw, and adding gutter guards so that I don't have to keep climbing up there to clear them of leaves. Where would we be without inspiration, whatever its source?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Household Batteries Go in the Trash

In case you're wondering why household batteries can now go in the trash, here is the explanation on the Mercer County website. Rechargeable batteries, on the other hand, are usually recyclable at RadioShack and other similar stores.

Household Batteries

Household batteries may be placed in your normal trash due to the fact that mercury levels have been significantly reduced and fall within DEP standards.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Measuring Your Home Energy Use

Any effort to cut back on home energy use quickly runs into a problem: our homes are designed to keep us in the dark about the consequences of our energy consumption habits.

Though foods are labeled for caloric content, you'll have a hard time finding any label on your computer, dishwasher, water heater, or any other household item that will tell you how much energy it uses.

Go on a diet, and you can get instant feedback on your progress by standing on a scale. Newer cars will tell you how many miles/gallon you're getting at any moment. But in a house, the most expensive item you're ever likely to own, feedback on energy use comes in tiny print, once a month in the mail. The electric meter is outside somewhere in the bushes, the gas meter is in a cramped corner of the basement, and their dials are hard to make any sense of.

For the highly motivated, it's possible to track down devices to measure energy consumption on the internet. To measure my own use, I bought a Kill-a-Watt, which is a $25 handheld device that will tell you what most plug-in appliances in your home are consuming at any moment or over a period of time. It's very helpful, but not for measuring the big consumers, like the central A/C, the dishwasher and clothes dryer. For those, I had to buy a $150 device that tells me how many watts my whole house is consuming at any moment. Though a number of home energy monitors are available on the internet, I ended up buying The Energy Detective--TED for short. Now I can turn on the dryer or any other item and see immediately how much my energy use jumps.

I'm surprised how many people shrug at the notion that this sort of knowledge and instant feedback could have any impact on behavior. It certainly has changed mine, as another post will describe.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Energy Consumption and the Sound of Silence

Though most people are now aware that global warming is a problem, awareness does not necessarily spur a change in behavior. For me, a sense of urgency developed by degrees. A photo seen, an article read--all describing a radically changed world because of our consumption of ancient fuels. Oftentimes, matter-of-fact descriptions had a greater impact than high volume soundings of alarm. At some point--maybe it was a description of how our CO2 emissions are fundamentally changing the chemistry and ecological destiny of the oceans--I realized the status quo could not continue.

Strangely, the realization need not lead to a burden of guilt but instead to a sense of empowerment. Each of us has the power to reduce our impact. The first thing to do is to discern when you're consuming fossil fuels and when you're not. This is not so easy, particularly around the house, where silent appliances can nonetheless be consuming large quantities of electricity. Unfortunately, your electric meter is of little use, since it's hard to read and located outside somewhere in the bushes. Not a convenient setup for providing feedback. A separate post will describe how to measure your energy use at any particular moment.

Just as my sense of urgency was fed by quiet descriptions rather than loud pronouncements of imminent doom, there is another sort of quiet that can power change in our lifestyles. The silence I refer to in the title of this post has more to do with awareness than with sound. Right now, my computer is drawing nearly 200 watts, the refrigerator several rooms over is cycling on and off, using another 200 or so when it's on. The TV and cordless phone are drawing a few watts, even though they are turned off. Beyond that, things are pretty "quiet" around here. If I decided to use the electric dryer rather than a clothesline, the house would suddenly be drawing an extra 3700 watts! Though the dryer's quiet as a whisper, it's possible to "hear" this as a raucous noise of consumption.

Fortunately, the clothes are air-drying, and if I turn off the computer, the house's power consumption gets quieter still. To be aware of this sound of silence is to relax in a new way. This awareness can be applied to your personal energy consumption at any moment in your day. Even though the street traffic may be loud, to walk or bike somewhere is to experience silence, whereas to drive a car is to hear a racket (consumption speaking), even if the windows are up.

The impact each of us has on the world as we consume fossil fuels is abstract. But the evidence is in--our collective impact is real. As each of us comes to realize what is at stake, it's understandable if we all feel a growing sense of tension between our lifestyles and the planet's future. Develop an awareness, "listen" to how much power you're consuming, find ways to turn down the volume, and discover in this all-too noisy and abstract world a new feeling of relaxation that has silence at its core.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Solar Powered Lifestyle (Without Solar Panels)

I looked into getting solar panels for my home. The roof's oriented all wrong, and there are some big trees in the way. The solar rep, slow to yield to reality, suggested we put the panels in the backyard. What a lovely sight that would be, and a perfect target for soccer balls and various other errant airborne objects.

That puts me in a group that includes most Princetonians, who by and large like the shade and don't have homes that will conveniently rotate to face south. After a few months of being discouraged, I realized that there are nonetheless large portions of my lifestyle that can be converted to solar power, without the substantial investment in solar panels.

Begin with the realization that all of us are solar powered. The food that keeps us going carries energy harvested from the sun over the last year or so. True, it took fossil fuels to grow, process and transport the food, but fossil fuels are also consumed in the construction, transport and installation of solar panels. An array of panels on your roof might be dandy, but there are other ways of harnessing the solar energy within you and without you. The most retro of lifestyles can suddenly seem cutting edge when looked at from this perspective.

For instance, most people already have a solar powered vehicle, better known as a bicycle. Steep hills somehow seem less onerous when you realize you're drawing your energy from the sun. An electric clothes dryer is one of the biggest energy hogs in your home (mine draws 3700 watts) and can be easily replaced by a solar-powered dryer, in the form of a clothesline or foldable drying rack. (Towels still go in the regular dryer, at least until the scratchy-towel-syndrome can be conquered.) My solar powered lighting system (windows) works from sun-up to sunset. And a solar-powered dishwasher frequently takes on the pile of dishes on the kitchen counter. A vacuum cleaner (ours draws a hefty 1000 watts while on) is still handy for rugs and carpets, but a solar-powered broom works just fine for smooth floors.

The body has solar-powered heating and cooling capabilities that can be optimized by matching clothing to the season. The solar-powered mind, too, can play a role. Though I doubt I could meditate naked in the snow, like Buddhist monks, I find my perception of comfort increases if I acknowledge that it is, in fact, summer, and maybe it's okay if the house feels just a wee bit warmer than during other seasons. Air conditioning can get consumed much like coffee. The first cup generates a vague appetite for more, whether it's needed or not.

News articles come and go about research breakthroughs that will make solar panels more powerful and affordable, but we're all still waiting for them to turn into products we can actually buy. In the meantime, and it seems to be taking a long time, the solar-powered self is the best solar cell we've got.

Making Use of Fallen Leaves in Your Yard

The previous post (below) tells why raking all your leaves to the curb is not such a great idea. There are lots of reasons to think of leaves as an asset rather than a burden. Here are some ways you can use leaves to advantage in your yard, whether it be large or small.

1. The simplest thing to do is rake/blow them into a woodlot, if available.

2. Rake them against the fenceline, where they can serve as a mulch to keep down weeds that often dominate along fencelines. Or dump them on any other weeds or groundcovers that are getting out of control. A thick layer of leaves discourages weeds. For weeds/groundcovers strong enough to push up through the leaves, first place overlapping pieces of cardboard on the undesired plants, then use the leaves over top to hide the cardboard.

3. Rake them into a leafpile. A corral or circle of wire fencing will help contain the leaves and keep them from blowing around. A readily available fencing is 3 feet high, green, and comes in rolls at the local hardware store. (Photo shows enough fencing for several corrals). The corral is essentially invisible when tucked in a back corner of the lot. A U-shape may be preferred so that leaves can be dragged, blown or raked right into the enclosure rather than lifted over the fencing. The leaf pile quickly reduces in size over the winter. The leaves can be left to decompose, acting like a sponge to catch the rain, and releasing nutrients to benefit the health of all trees and other landscaping in the vicinity. Contrary to popular notions of composting, it's not necessary to laboriously turn the pile. Just let it decompose over time. My experience is that a pile of leaves does not create odors.

4. Spread them on the vegetable garden and leave them there to hold in moisture, prevent weeds from sprouting, keep the soil cool in the summer, and slowly release nutrients. Planting tomatoes, for instance, requires nothing more than parting the leaves to put the new plants in. The leaf mulch reduces rotting of any tomotoes that touch the ground.

5. Mulch them up with a mower so they can disappear back into the lawn. The fragmented leaves can also be raked onto flower beds as a mulch. Some leaves, like those of silver maples, crinkle up and all but disappear into the lawn on their own, even before mowing. For thick, persistent leaves like those from a red oak, a corral or the mulch mower approach will keep them from blowing back into the yard.


A vast deluge of leaves will soon be falling on Princeton, and the question is what to do with them all. For as long as can be remembered, most people have raked them into the streets and let the town scramble to clear away the resultant mess. Given how much homeowners pay in property taxes, it's understandable why people feel they should take advantage of one of this high-visibility service the town provides.

But I would argue that this tradition is needlessly expensive, dangerous and destructive, and that there are alternatives that could easily be adopted by most homeowners without any aesthetic or physical sacrifice.

Consider the above photo, taken last fall, which shows how one homeowner goes to the trouble of cleaning a woods. The homeowner no doubt likes things tidy, which can be seen as admirable, but let's take a look at the string of events this purging of leaves from the property sets into motion:

Leaves that were providing nutrients for the trees, and protection against soil erosion, are blown by a hired crew out into the street, where they block traffic near a school, pollute the local streams and must then be hauled out of town at community expense. In other words, leafblowers are used to create a solid waste problem, requiring more machines to carry the leaves away, grind them up for industrial-scale composting, then haul the leaf mold somewhere for final use.

In the age of global warming, it's hard to rationalize the extravagant consumption of fossil fuels this landscape practice demands. If the homeowner is not comfortable with the
blanket of leaves the trees are trying to lay down for themselves, a much less harmful alternative is to place them in a wire corral in the back corner of the property (see post above).

But needless fuel consumption is only one of many reasons why the status quo is harmful to the community:

Increased Flooding: The annual mass removal of leaves from the urban landscape reduces organic matter in urban soils. This makes the ground less able to absorb rainwater, which increases flooding in local creeks.

Water Pollution: Though it's not obvious from the looks of things, the streets we walk on, drive on and dump stuff onto are essentially dry creekbeds, directly linked to the town's streams. Leaves dumped in the street invariably get rained on, start to decompose, and then release nutrient pollution into waterways before they can be picked up.

Energy consumption: If the township and borough are going to reduce energy consumption by 25%, in an effort to reduce the local impact on global warming, one place to start is by reducing the need for big rig caravans scooping or vacuuming up leaves along the street. In the borough, it's impressive to watch The Claw deftly scooping up leaves, but it burns a lot of gas, as do the massive grinders that triple-shred the leaves out at the Ecological Center. The export of leaves from town also requires burning more gas to then haul them back into town, in the form of mulch and compost.

Safety: Leaves on the street force cars out across the center line, and can cause fires if hot mufflers or catalytic converters on parked cars touch dry leaves. Where there are no sidewalks, pedestrians and bicyclists are forced towards the center of the street. Blockage of stormdrains by leaves adds to these problems.

Tree health: If we want to promote healthy trees in town, it's hard to imagine a happier tree root than one infiltrating the rich leafmold on the underside of a leafpile.
Most properties with big piles of leaves out at the curb have room on their lot for a leaf pile that will quickly and dramatically reduce in size over the winter. Perhaps there's a way to mix education and an incremental change in policy that would allow Princeton to trade one tradition for another that makes more ecological and horticultural sense.

Expense and diversion of staff from other municipal services: Leaf collection increases wear and tear on town vehicles and draws town crews away from other services they would ordinarily provide yearround.

Grass Clipping Update

In response to a state law passed some time ago, Princeton Borough is no longer picking up grass clippings from the streets ( Grass clippings clog drains and their nutrients can leach into local streams. The stormwater system underlying town streets feeds directly into streams, so dumping anything on the street is essentially the same as throwing it into the local brook.

Some homeowners hold to the belief that grass clippings left on the lawn cause thatch buildup, but the Mercer County Extension service does not recommend removing them. They are high in beneficial nutrients and decompose quickly. They can also be composted if mixed with other organic materials. Go to for more info.

Unfortunately, many homeowners, not having gotten any clear feedback from the borough, are still dumping grass clippings out on the streets, making ever larger piles. Maybe someday there will be a good feedback system developed so the policy is made clear to those who can't take a hint.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What To Do With Batteries

Batteries can no longer be recycled curbside.

I just called up the Mercer County Improvement Authority, and they confirmed that alkaline batteries are safe to put in the garbage. They had no suggestions about how to recycle them. As stated on Princeton Township's website (, rechargeable batteries can usually be recycled at your local Radio Shack or other similar store. For other sorts of batteries, you may want to consult the Mercer County website ( Our elementary school was collecting batteries for awhile--something to keep an eye out for.

Leave Grass Clippings On the Lawn!

If the borough ordinance forbids putting lawn clippings out on the road, why do the street crews keep taking them away? Good question. Even in a government bureaucracy as small as Princeton Borough, there are contradictions. Though street crews are showing a generous nature, the result is that neighbors imitate other neighbors, and soon the whole block is violating an ordinance intended to prevent high-nitrogen yardwaste from polluting the nearby creek via storm sewers.

Sometimes, it's a misinformed landscape business that is first on the block to dump illegally.

Word has it that the borough may eventually start fining homeowners who put grass clippings out on the road.

The Mercer County Master Gardeners recommend leaving grass clippings on the lawn ( If you don't, you're lawn loses valuable nitrogen that must then be replaced by buying more fertilizer. The worst thing to do with grass clippings is to pile them up. The high nitrogen and lack of aeration favor anaerobic bacteria that raise a stink if the pile is disturbed.

Meanwhile, in the township, it appears that there is no yardwaste pickup at all in June and August. More info can be found at

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Yard Sale in Reverse

I almost missed my big chance to recycle old computers that had been sitting in the garage for most of a year. They weren't mine. I had seen them put out on the curb for the garbage, and couldn't stand the thought of all that lead and other heavy metals in the monitors heading to the landfill.

Princeton Township lets its residents drop off computers for recycling year-round, but we boroughins end up waiting for the big annual recycling day in the township parking lot on Witherspoon.

Adding to the environmental good feelings of the event, it turns out that the computers (and TVs and various other electronic stuff accepted at this annual event) are not shipped oversees to some unregulated smelting plant, but are actually recycled right here in New Jersey.

Residents were also encouraged to bring in old financial documents for shredding.

The whole thing was organized by Princeton Township's recycling coordinator, Janet Pellichero, with help and impetus from the Princeton Environmental Commission.

If you missed it, either wait until next year, check out what recycling days Mercer County offers ( or, if you live in the township, check out for instructions on how to recycle your computer and related equipment.

Bone Up On What's Recyclable

My dog has been taking me on daily around-the-block tours of our neighborhood. It allows him to catch up on the latest canine comings and goings in the 'hood, and every two weeks I get to take a reading on the state of recycling in town. Basically, people need to bone up on what's recyclable and what's not. I see a lot of (pardon the sports analogy) Hail Marys getting thrown into the recycling bins, that is, stuff that should be recyclable but which in our imperfect world could actually cause problems at the recycling plant. So let's get our recycling chops together, and learn what goes in the recycling bins, and what has to go in the trash.

Here are a few common mistakes, followed by some links to useful websites:

DON'T put your recyclables in plastic bags! Put them loose in the bins. Paper can be stuffed in paper bags.

DON'T try to recycle those wide-mouthed plastic containers, like yogurt cups, flower pots or folding salad bar containers. They may say #1 or #2 on the bottom, but if they don't narrow at the top for a small lid, they aren't recyclable. For details on all this, scrutinize the photo in Mercer County's brochure of Common Recycling Mistakes

DON'T recycle pizza boxes of any kind. The delivered ones are greasy. Frozen food boxes look clean, but have something in them that relegates them to the trash.

Styrofoam belongs in the garbage. Check township website for more info.

DON'T recycle toys. They either get a second life via a yardsale or meet their ignominious end in the trash can. I have an idea for a Fix-It Museum in town, where refugees from the throw-away society get to see real people fixing things for re-use, but that will have to wait.

No light bulbs! No glass other than bottles and jars. The glass in drinking glasses is apparently different from bottle glass. To recycle florescent bulbs, which contain traces of mercury, check the websites below for dropoff locations.

For recycling afficionados, here are a few extra tips:

  • Metal and plastic lids are recyclable, but take them off before putting them in the bins.
  • A few of those windowed envelopes won't hurt, but as a whole, the windows need to come out.
  • Washing containers before putting them in the bins helps keep odors down, but I recently heard that the process of melting down recyclables for reuse burns all the impurities off.
Check out in particular the Mercer County brochure. It's got PICTURES!

Everything That Can and Cannot Be Recycled, From A to Z
(As encyclopedic as it sounds)

What To Put in the Yellow and Green Buckets

Princeton Recycling Pickup Dates

Mercer County Brochure With Picture of Common Recycling Mistakes (One-page picture that's good for printing out. The one inaccuracy on it is that bottle tops are in fact recyclable.)

Mercer County General Recycling Info

Thanks to Princeton Township's Janet Pellichero for helping with this post.