Monday, December 22, 2008

Princeton Public Library Getting Greener

Of many small steps is a functional recycling program composed. The Princeton Public Library cafe, whose look-alike trash and recycling containers were preventing adequate separation (previous post), has retrofitted its recycling container with a new top. The contrast in color, the smaller opening, and the pairing of the trash and recycling containers all should help prevent the recycling container from being contaminated with trash.

The library has also improved other aspects of its recycling program.

Some Princeton residents have raised concerns about the library's energy consumption. According to the building manager, he has replaced most lights with fluorescents, and reduced the brightness of the bulbs lighting the stacks from 75 watt to 50 watt. Only fluorescent lights are left on after the building closes, to allow the custodians to clean up.

Some additional steps that might be taken would be to have the custodians only light the story they are cleaning, rather than having all three floors lit during that time. And it should be possible to program the public computers to go into standby mode when not in use. The lights embedded in the sidewalk, which shine up on the columns, make for a nice effect, but are not exactly a model for energy efficiency and reducing light pollution in the night sky.

Ideally, such a flagship public building would announce its green features to all who walk in, as a demonstration.

Community Park Elementary Recycling Improves

Success! A recent check of the bins behind Community Park Elementary show the school has brought its recycling rate up to that of other schools like Little Brook and Riverside. Two full 96 gallon rollout bins of paper each week seems to be the typical production of an elementary school with a functional recycling program.

The recycling regimens instituted last year through a big push by volunteers and staff look to be holding up and even improving. Each school room has three bins--one each for trash, bottles/cans and paper. Each day, students take the recyclables to larger containers in a central location, such as the cafeteria. Custodial staff then empty these larger containers into the rollouts out back.

From what I've heard, functional recycling programs in NJ's schools are more the exception than the rule, which makes Princeton's achievement all the more impressive.

One thing that would make the recycling programs even better would be if the schools tracked how much they recycled each week. Might be a good math challenge for students to come up with totals for the year, with calculations of the environmental benefit.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Philadelphia on the Environmental Forefront?

I've been hearing some good things about Philadelphia's environmental initiatives lately. Reportedly, Philadelphia used to have a very inconvenient curbside recycling service. It was every other week, with shifting schedules that didn't coincide with trash pickup. The recycling rate was down around 7%, or some such.

But all this has changed. Recycling curbside pickup is now weekly, on the same day as trash pickup, and residents can throw all recyclables in one container, rather than sorting by type. The program is called "All Together Now!", with a snappy website to go along with it (http://64.78.36.115/res_main.asp). The website includes a recycling game in which you race the clock while clicking and dragging various items to a recycling or trash bin on the screen. I recommend playing it with the sound (an obnoxious siren) turned off.

In any case, compare the convenience of the Philadelphia system to that of Princeton, where recycling is every other week, and collection is still dual stream. Though Princeton just signed a contract to continue with the current system for another year and a half, it will be worth researching options in the future.

I've also heard that Philadelphia's energy company has recently completed installing smart meters citywide. Smart meters are frequently mentioned as a top priority if we are to dramatically reduce our energy use. In New Jersey, PSE&G installed a few demos here and there, but has reportedly abandoned any large scale conversion. Instead, the utility is said to be investing heavily in wind energy off the coast.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Reading a Snowy Roof For Heat Loss

While engaged in a snowball fight with my daughter recently, I glanced up at the roof of our house. What were those strange patterns in the snow? The vertical white lines are the rafters, whose thick wood reduces the roof's exposure to the warmer air inside the attic. Chances are the dark spots, where all the snow has melted, coincide with where light fixtures stick through the ceiling, allowing hot air to escape into the attic from living areas.

Using patterns of snow melt to figure out where you have leaks in your top floor ceiling is in the same category as a post on this website one year ago (12/17/07) about how to use indoor spider webs as energy detectives.

The way to stop all that hot air from escaping through the ceiling is to build boxes around the light fixtures, up in the attic. I've heard from an insulation contractor that the boxes can be made of cut pieces of drywall or styrofoam, and should be no closer than several inches from the light fixture, since the lights can produce a lot of heat.

Another approach is to replace the fixtures with the kind that don't leak and can have insulation pushed right up against them. These are quite inexpensive, but they require fiddling with wires during installation. More info can be found elsewhere on the web about this.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Recycling Containers and Body Language

(My other posts about recycling containers can now be found at www.recyclingcontainers.blogspot.com)

The string of posts below serve as critiques of a wide variety of recycling containers used in places frequented by the public. That many of them, including those that cost as much as $1000 each, fail to serve their intended purpose points to the need for this "course" in container design.

Containers matter because they are the first in a row of dominoes, helping determine whether a recycling system functions or collapses in a heap. If the trash is mixed with recyclables, custodians throw it all away, and use the contamination as an excuse to eventually not bother recycling at all. This "recycling in name only" in turn breeds cynicism, further eroding participation by the public. The dysfunctional containers remain long afterwards, in libraries, stadiums, on city streets--like gravestones to good intentions.

A functional recycling container 1) provides abundant visual cues to the user, and 2) is paired with a trash container. These two rules are very simple, but through indifference or some stubborn belief that people carefully read signs and behave rationally, they are frequently ignored.

Though recycling in concept has broad, perhaps almost universal support, most people are surprisingly oblivious about what they do with an item they wish to get rid of when out about town. Refuse or recyclable, it goes in the first trash-like container they encounter, regardless of labeling. As described in one of the posts, our big brains don't want to be preoccupied with small things. Unfortunately, countless small actions add up to large consequence, as we've seen over and over--in nonpoint source pollution, global warming, and the voting that serves as the foundation of democracy.

Most recycling container designs fail for lack of the right visual cues. People don't stop to take note of the nice recycling logo, but respond instead, in their state of distraction, to subliminal messages--the body language of the container.

Recycle Containers in Princeton Parks

The typical approach to recycling outdoors is to not provide the recycling option, which characterizes most town streets.

In Princeton parks, 35 gallon yellow recycling bins have been common. Though they work pretty well if paired with trash cans, their large openings make contamination with trash more likely.


A more expensive approach was tried at Turning Basin Park, where many pairs of wood-framed trash and recycling containers were installed for a total of $12,000. They're built to last, and won't walk away, but their subtle visual cues--particularly the similarly sized holes--are problematic. Contamination seemed minimal when I checked, but I have since heard they aren't working as well as hoped.

Transparency in Recycling Containers

Transparency--being able to see the bottles and cans in the container--works on multiple levels. It gives abundant visual cues to the user, and it lets the custodian know when the bag is full. With a small hole on top, there's very little chance that these will get filled with trash.

The first one is a bit flimsy, but handy for events. It can be obtained at http://www.cleartainers.com/index.asp.

The second photo was sent to me by a NJ municipality that makes these out of PVC pipe. Sand is put in the lower portions of the piping to increase stability. If you want the specs for this, email me from the "about me" box in the right column of this blog.


The last photo shows a "Cannable" (on the left), which is a sturdy version one can buy. They can be used with or without clear plastic liners.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Recycling Containers in Nearby Cities

Here's a decent setup in Central Park. A rollout bin has been modified for recycling bottles and cans, with a trash can strategically located right next to it to reduce chances of contamination.


In the subways of New York City, they claim that recyclables will be separated out from the trash. Certainly simplifies things on the collection end. There have been a lot of advances in separation technology.




The last photo was taken at the skating rink at Penns Landing in Philadelphia. Great place to go, by the way, but their trash/recycling duo is doomed to failure. True, they are paired, and the recycling container looks different, but the wide mouth insures that the uncaring masses will contaminated it with trash.

Adapting Recycling Containers So They Work

As previous posts (below) have shown, good looks often defeats the goal of recycling. There are attractive recycling containers that are completely dysfunctional, ugly ones that serve the purpose, and all manner inbetween.

These three photos show modifications of existing containers. The first one is in an informal cafe, showing off once again the limitless versatility of cardboard in its service to humanity. Have a wide-mouthed trash can that you want to convert so people will only throw bottles and cans in it? Cardboard and felt pen to the rescue!

The second photo shows another, more weather resistant way to convert a trash can into a recycling container. Simply cut a hole in a plastic lid and add a small laminated sign. Note that it's paired with a container for trash. Otherwise, people would be tempted to throw trash in it, despite the small size of the opening.



The third photo is a clever, minimalist modification of a regular trash can at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in Pennsylvania. One makes pie-shaped slits in the lid, through which people push the can or bottle.

As far as I know, there is no manufacturer of this simple kind of recycling retrofit for trash cans. Makers of trash cans do not sell lids separately, much to the disgruntlement of hardware store owners, who find that lids tend to disappear from their shelves, leaving them with lidless trash cans they can't sell.

Princeton University Recycling Containers

The older, poorly designed recycling containers, including those in the previous post (below), are slowly being replaced on campus by better designs. The first photo here shows one of the older designs that, though paired, still are problematic because the trash (left) and recycling containers look so similar.

A newer design has been installed at the new soccer stadium, as part of an effort by the unversity's rec department to improve recycling at all stadiums on campus. The recycling bin is on the left, with a small hole for cans and bottles, made vertical so that rain doesn't get in. All of these are paired with trash cans, and probably work well. It would be better if the container was not completely opaque, i.e. if the container made it easy to see if the bag inside is filling up and needs to be emptied.


The third photo shows the kind of container that's becoming common inside buildings, with different shaped holes for trash, paper and cans/bottles. These, too, look like a big improvement.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Dysfunctional Recycling Containers--Part Two

One day, after a lunchtime talk at Princeton University on global warming, students, faculty and some locals were milling around, finishing their lunch while avidly discussing how to save the world. As they left, they were far too distracted by their lofty thoughts to notice they were stuffing their paper plates in a recycling container for cans and bottles. A container labeled for trash was just outside the door, but nobody could be bothered to seek it out.

And so it goes with much of human life. Our big brains are more taken with big ideas than the nitty gritty, small acts that cumulatively determine our fate on this planet.

It doesn't help that these containers are poorly designed. The big opening in the recycling container is begging for refuse, and there is no visual cue beyond the subtle labeling to distinguish it from the trash can (2nd photo). If environmentalists don't bother to read the labeling, who will?

The custodians told me that if there's any contamination in the recyclables, they throw the whole batch in the trash.


Monday, December 01, 2008

Recycling Contest At Princeton's Football Stadium

There's a hard-fought contest going on every day at the Princeton University football stadium. The Bad But Beautiful are duking it out with the Good But Ugly in the Regional Recycling Division.

Whose going to win? In the first photo is the Bad But Beautiful, featuring stylish stainless steel design and subtle distinctions between the trash (left) and the recycling container (right). I'm betting the recycling container will fail bigtime, because it's too far from, and looks too much like, the trash container.

Sure enough, the second photo shows the Bad But Beautiful recycling container is getting filled with trash.




"Taking the field" on the stadium's south side are the Good But Uglies, who aren't winning any beauty contest but definitely look like a contender.
A small hole for the bottles/cans, angled to keep out the rain, discourages trash even when they aren't paired with a trash can. They are soft-spoken--the lettering is hard to see--but in a game where body language matters more than labels, these containers are sending a message--NO TRASH HERE!

Check out the complete lack of trash contamination in the last photo. I think we have a winner!



Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dysfunctional Recycling Containers--Part One

(Note, 11/09: Since this post was published, the library has improved its recycling containers.)

They say you can't judge a book by its cover. This recycling container looks perfectly sensible, clearly labeled as to what should be thrown into it. But in practice it fails miserably at its intended use, and has been doing so ever since the Princeton Public Library's cafe opened several years ago.

A functional recycling container would 1) provide abundant visual cues to the user, and 2) be paired with a trash container. The absence of either of these attributes almost always insures the "recycling" container will get filled with trash.

Designers of buildings and plazas typically choose aesthetics over functionality, which often means the trash and recycling containers are both expensive (as much as $1000 each) and stylishly similar in appearance. The library cafe's recycling container fails because it is placed far from the trash container and looks just like it (2nd photo). Though the container is labeled, no one stops to read labels, and the container's wide mouth is an invitation for trash.

Here you have a high profile public building in a progressive town, no doubt run by people with environmental sympathies, and everything but cardboard is being thrown in the trash dumpster out back.

You'd expect institutions like schools and libraries to use recycling as a way to educate children to be good environmental stewards, but my experience has been the opposite. Far from being unusual, this "recycling in name only" is more the rule than the exception in public places, institutions and businesses.

Only an extremely persistent volunteer effort was sufficient to get recycling up to speed in Princeton's public schools last year. This fall, multiple emails over several months to the library have at last yielded a recognition by the library's management of this and other recycling problems in the building. Princeton township and borough have mandatory recycling ordinances, but these by themselves do not make recycling happen.

In the plaza outside the library are some more gleaming containers, sometimes paired. The openings are at least different--for those that still have tops--but there's a good chance that people don't distinguish, and that all contents get carted off to the landfill.






Saturday, November 22, 2008

Solar Retrofit For A Garage

It seems such a shame to have all that wonderful solar energy glancing off the sides of the house all winter. If all homes had passive solar designs, we'd be well on our way to solving our share of the global warming crisis.

But they're not, so what to do? I cleaned the windows on the south and west sides, and took off the screens, to be as welcoming to the sun as our windows allow. A small gesture, but it's surprising how much heat comes in on a sunny day.

One spot that offered greater possibilities was the garage, which, incredible as it may sound, used to be used for storing cars. Because it's located under living space, a cold garage will make for a cooler floor in the rooms above. It didn't help that the garage door allowed outside air in freely around its edges.

What followed was a long period of cogitation intermingled with what I like to call strategic procrastination. The vague plan gained more momentum and clarity when a friend gave me some old aluminum storm windows. Then, as the sun conveniently began dipping low in the sky to flood the garage with light, some 2X3s got purchased and eventually cut to size, screwed together, and finally fitted with my friend's storm windows. Below is the end result. It cost next to nothing, and can easily be removed during the summer.

Note the leaf pile, meant to deter incoming cars.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Harvest Gone Wrong--2008

Each weekday morning, kids and parents stream down Abernathy Street to get to Little Brook Elementary School. This time of year, leaves on the street make the morning and afternoon rush hours a little more dangerous, as leaves piled on the street constrict traffic flow and turn slippery in the rain.

The township, responding to a state mandate, requires that leaves not be put on the street until one week before the monthly pickup, and that the piles extend no more than three feet out from the curb. This pile, a common sight, was set out two weeks before scheduled pickup, and extends ten feet out.

As often is the case, this was the work of a landscape crew from out of town that seems oblivious to local regulations.

The second photo, dramatizing the hazardous aspect of leaves dumped in the street, gives evidence of a car skidding through a stop sign on rotting leaves, in a busy intersection crowded with kids twice a day.


The third photo shows a small victory for sanity. A homeowner who used to have the leaves in her woodlot blown into the street every fall has had a change of heart. She now piles some in three wire bins, and spreads the rest in a well-defined area under the trees, enriching her soil and leaving the street clean.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Grocery Bags and Good Intentions


I have consolidated all our cloth grocery bag holdings, which have maintained their size and number despite the shrinking stock market. Seven, all told, with rumors of others floating around--acquired by various family members with good intentions to stem the flow of disposable plastic bags through our hands and into the landfill. Next step is to redistribute the bags to strategic locations--the back seat of the car, the hallway closet--where they stand half a chance of being remembered for the next trip to the grocery store.

They work great, I must say, accommodating the groceries nicely, and it feels good to be holding something of quality on the walk back to the car, rather than a flimsy plastic bag that begins its useful life with one foot in the landfill.

Funny, though. I've used them only once, otherwise managing to think of them only when I arrive at the checkout counter, when it's too late.

It's an appealing idea for the world's greatest consumer nation: save the world by buying more stuff. But the world will only be saved when we change our behavior, and despite our reputation as a highly adaptable species, that seems the hardest task of all.

One alternative approach: Stick a few disposable plastic bags in your pocket before going to the grocery store, not to recycle but to reuse, with their final use being as a liner for the trash can under the kitchen sink.

Recycling Containers--Do's and Don't's

This post will evolve over time, as I collect photos of recycling containers. There are beautiful ones that are completely dysfunctional, ugly ones that serve the purpose, and all manner inbetween.

Here's one in the latter category, showing off once again the limitless versatility of cardboard in its service to humanity. Have a wide-mouthed trash can that you want to convert so people will only throw bottles and cans in it? Cardboard and felt pen to the rescue.

The second photo shows another, more weather resistant way to convert a trash can to a recycling container. Simply cut a hole in a plastic lid and add a small laminated sign. Note that it's paired with a trash can. Otherwise, people would be tempted to throw trash in it, despite the small size of the opening.

As far as I know, there is no manufacturer of this simple recycling retrofit for trash cans. Makers of trash cans do not sell lids separately, much to the disgruntlement of hardware store owners, who find that lids tend to disappear from their shelves, leaving them with lidless trash cans they can't sell.

Monday, November 10, 2008

2nd Annual Green Home and Garden Tour Saturday

Anne Neumann of the Princeton Environmental Commission sends this information:

The Princeton Environmental Commission's second annual Green Home and Garden Tour is this coming Saturday, November 15, from eleven o'clock till four.

Simultaneously, Hopewell Township's Environmental Commission will hold
its first "Greener Living" tour. This year's tour-goers can see twice as many examples of living sustainably. Last year's Princeton tour won a 2008 New Jersey Environmental Achievement Award. The two free, self-guided tours will feature area homes, gardens, commercial buildings, and a school. Together, they demonstrate the major kinds of environmental sustainability recommended by the U.S. Green Building Council through its LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

The tours are designed not only to show area residents practical ways to
live sustainably. They are also intended to forward our area's economic sustainability by showcasing the local architects, builders, suppliers, and landscapers who can help tour-goers realize their environmental goals.

Maps allowing you to take these tours can be downloaded soon at www.princetontwp.org and at www.hopewelltwp.org.

Saving On Water and Sewer Bills

Now is a good time of year to consider ways to reduce water use. Your sewer bill, which you pay through your property taxes, is calculated each year from your winter water bill. The logic is that, since you aren't watering your lawn in the middle of January, all the water you use in winter goes down the drain. A winter bill, therefore, provides a good measure of how much water you're sending to the wastewater treatment plant year-round.

If you reduce your winter water bill, you will save for the next year on your sewer bill. So, for instance, if you've been meaning to buy a low-flow toilet, put aerators on your faucets, or get a low-flow shower head, now's as good a time as any. If you don't want to replace all the toilets, just replace the one that gets the most use. Designs have improved so much that a water-efficient new toilet works far better than the old water-guzzling varieties. Consumer Reports compares some models. I've heard Eljers are good, and Toto, too. Toto has a 1.28 gallon E-Max model that is excellent. I'm sure there are many others that work well. Gravity flush is more than sufficient. No need for pressurizing chambers, etc.

Another way to save on water bills, and heating as well, is to adjust your water heater so that the water is just the right temperature for a shower. This makes for much less fiddling with hot and cold during showers, and makes it easy to adopt the "navy shower" approach (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navy_shower). Maybe we should call it an "energy security" shower.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Central A/C Uses Energy Even in Winter

The energy "vampires" in your house, those appliances that draw electrical power even when turned off, include your central air conditioner. There's a small heating unit in the compressor that keeps the crankcase oil warm. I checked with someone at Redding, and was told that there is no need to have this function turned on during those months when the A/C is not in use.

To prevent this energy loss, simply trip the circuit breaker that's dedicated to the A/C, so that it is off through fall, winter and spring. Push the circuit breaker again as hot weather approaches, to allow it to warm up again before use. Saves about $10/year.

Here is some info from a neighbor with more expertise than I:
"Yes, it is true that there is a "sump" heater that keeps the freon oil warm. I actually flipped off both my compressor breakers last week at home for that very reason. Just be sure to turn it back on a day or so before you actually want to run the air conditioner so you don't push oil through the lines."


I discovered this by using a T.E.D. whole house energy monitor, which tells me how much energy the house is using at any moment. The trick is to try turning everything off in the house. If some energy is still being used, then try turning off one circuit breaker at a time to see where the mysterious energy drain is coming from. This led to the discovery of the A/C's vampire nature, confirmed by a call to the A/C repairman.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Recycling Envelopes With Windows Okay

I wish I could recycle all the time I spend throwing out junk mail. If there were a conspiracy to befuddle the masses, junk mail would be one of the most insidious weapons in the arsenal. Target the population with stealth junk covered with words like "important", "last chance!", and "personal", preoccupy people's minds with semi-appealing offers, encased in envelopes whose recyclability is perpetually in question. If the conspiracy is successful, people will become deadened to all that claims to be important, personal or opportune. As our minds turn to jello, the nation will falter as it fails to respond to real crises and opportunities.

So I offer this tidbit as a public service, in defense of our great nation and its precious reserves of grey matter. Will the windows contaminate the paper recycling process? A NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection staffer who lives the business of recycling day in and day out tells me the plastic windows float to the surface in the vat of recycled paper fibers and can easily be skimmed off.

So toss those peskily windowed envelopes straight into the recycling bin, and save your quandaring for greater things.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Problems With Downtown Recycling

Another example of inadequate recycling in Princeton can be found downtown, in the borough. The library, for instance, recycles cardboard, but from what I've heard and seen, all paper, bottles and cans get tossed out with the trash. The library cafe has stylish but totally dysfunctional lookalike recycling and trash containers that both end up filled with trash.

The two businesses I checked with are recycling bottles and cans, but all the paper and cardboard are getting thrown away. Email inquiries to the library and the Borough Merchants Association have not as yet gotten responses.

Again, this is a situation where local government, which gets annual grants from the state to support recycling initiatives and recycling coordinator positions, could be stepping in to make sure businesses are complying with the mandatory recycling ordinances. The merchants association, borough staff and the business owners themselves all could be playing a role in solving any logistical hurdles. The value of recyclables when compared to landfilling costs, the introduction of single stream recycling in which bottles/cans and paper can be mixed together, and the potential for businesses to team up and share dumpsters--all are ways that costs could be minimized.

What is most remarkable about the situation is that the great majority of Princeton institutions and businesses would surely say they are highly sympathetic to environmental concerns, and yet there is a breakdown in the expression of that sympathy at a nuts and bolts, day to day level.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Princeton Football Recycling-- Followup

An inquiry to the Princeton University athletic department about the general lack of recycling at football games may prove to have been productive. Turns out they are updating recycling one stadium at a time. Well designed containers are in place at the new soccer stadium, with hockey and football to follow.

They have instructed their university student teams (more sustainable than my suggestion of community volunteer groups) to separate out recyclables when cleaning the football stadium, so the 2000 or so plastic bottles strewn about after games may not end up in the trash.

A larger lesson from this experience:
  • It's amazing how many poorly designed recycling containers are out there to be bought at great expense. The containers--stainless steel, $1000 a pop--are oftentimes chosen by the architects, who think about appearance rather than function. For an integrated decor, they choose recycling containers that look just like those for trash. Lacking visual cues, users don't stop to read subtle labeling, and so the recycling containers end up full of trash. The architects and the container manufacturers, through ignorance or indifference, sabotage the very activity they are supposed to be facilitating, and no feedback loop appears to be in place to change this.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Princeton Football Recycling Still Seeking a Win

One of the most obvious breakdowns in recycling in Princeton is at sports events and festivals. I did a quick calculation after the stands were vacated at the Princeton University football game yesterday, and came up with a figure of 2000 plastic bottles laying around, all of which are probably being treated as trash by the custodial staff.

One way to spare all these bottles from the trash would be to have the sports department give free tickets and some plastic bags to a scout troop, which would then gather and recycle all the bottles after the game, during the "fifth quarter" activities. The announcer could recognize the scouts over the P.A. system.

The recycling receptacles at the stadium are few and far between, and look just like the trash receptacles except they have a slightly lighter shade of metal top. The holes on the trash and recycling receptacles are the same size and width--maybe a foot across, which means that the receptacle, though it says "bottles and cans" on it, is talkin' trash, so to speak. I checked two of them. One had mostly trash, the other, amazingly, had mostly bottles.

Venders would be able to provide better numbers on overall bottle sales, but my guess is that about 5% of, say, 4000 bottles are getting recycled during football games.

Recycling at the high school games is hit or miss. Sometimes there are receptacles, sometimes not. And, again, the recycling containers have wide tops that encourage people to treat them as trash containers.

The trash cans, it turns out, make excellent squirrel traps. Their heavy lids are the kind with hinged doors you push on to put trash in. The resident squirrels apparently know how to get in through the hinged door, but can't get out. Twice in two weeks, now, I've had to pull the lid off, then stand back as the squirrel rockets three feet straight up in the air before zipping off into the bleachers. It's like watching a cartoon.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Shopping Center Struggles With Recycling


I recently inquired about how recycling is going at the Princeton Shopping Center. The Center contributes greatly to quality of life in Princeton, providing a convenient place to shop, whose proximity to residential neighborhoods becomes ever more important as we try to limit our individual carbon footprints.

Businesses are required by law to recycle cardboard, which is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity. It's the township's responsibility to enforce this law and, if necessary, hand out fines for violations. However, during frequent shopping visits, I've noticed that cardboard is routinely getting thrown in trash dumpsters.

Turns out that the shopping center provides a cavernous dumpster for cardboard, but it's located at the far northern end of the parking lot, which means that any worker given the task of dealing with boxes has the choice of walking a quarter mile to the recycling dumpster, or throwing it in the trash dumpster just a few steps from the back door. It's not surprising, then, that recyclables are ending up in the trash.

Many businesses there no doubt recycle as they are supposed to, despite the inconvenient setup. McCaffery's compacts and recycles its own cardboard, and is also looking into partnering with a Pennsylvania company to have their food waste trucked away and composted. According to Jim McCaffery, the plastic bags customers return to the store are picked up by the Good Will and turned into things like benches.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Low-Flow Toilets and the Blessings of Smart Regulation

Toilets don't normally come up in conversation. The last time they were in the news was back in 1997, when the federal government passed a law requiring that all new toilets use a maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush. The new requirement generated loud complaints on editorial pages about government overreaching, and the slew of poorly functioning toilets that ensued gave comedians some good punch lines. In fact, a little research at the time showed that government was being falsely maligned, and that a few unsung manufacturers responded to the regulatory challenge by designing effective toilets.

In searching for a replacement for the old, inefficient 4 gallon toilets in my house (3 gallons if one puts bricks or weighted bottles in the tank), it turns out that manufacturers have figured out how to use even less water than the government standard. Toto has come out with a 1.28 gallon toilet, and I've been told by a local retailer that all manufacturers will be using less than 1.6 gallons in the future. There are also duel-flush toilets, which have a 0.8 gallon flush for liquid waste, though these are more expensive. We bought a 1.28 gallon Drake with a so-called E-Max gravity flush, which works far better than any of the old 4 gallon types.

Not all regulation is so constructive, but in the case of the lowly toilet, manufacturers responded to strict limits on water consumption by making a better product, and even going beyond what the government required.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life Speaks Out On Bike Safety

On why old helmets are dangerous and why kids shouldn't wear headphones while biking:

Sometimes life speaks in such a coherent, insistent manner that I have no choice but to stop and listen. Life's latest speaking engagement commenced at the bleachers of the Princeton high school sports field, where I was sitting with my daughter, having a picnic while watching the girl's soccer team practice. This is not normal behavior, seeing as we know no one on the team, and had never visited the field before.

Two men were cleaning up after the football game earlier in the day. They took their thankless task with a sense of humor. I asked one of them about recycling--the lack there of being a pet peeve of mine. He assure me that they do, mostly, and also took note of the old bike helmet I had next to me. "You should get a new helmet," he said. I knew this, but he explained exactly why my procrastination was dangerous. The helmet had long since lost its plastic shell, which he said is very important since the plastic coating makes the helmet "slippery". Otherwise it catches on the pavement, increasing the risk of neck injury. He also said the padding inside becomes hardened over time, which reduces a helmet's ability to cushion impact. "Helmets really need to be replaced every five years," he said with a tone of voice that led me to believe him.

Having brought me an impromptu lecture on helmet safety, life gave its second, far more emphatic, speech several days later, on Franklin Street near TeeAr Place. I was riding my daughter home on the bike, with the same old helmet on, when we heard a loud thump--the sound of a student getting hit by a car just up the street. He was sixteen, riding home from the high school with headphones in his ears and no bike helmet. Riding on the sidewalk, he suddenly veered into the street, right in front of a car going the same direction. The car had no time to stop. The impact must have been substantial--the bike was totaled, the car's windshield was smashed--but the boy, though dazed, was soon able to stand up. The ambulance came quickly. They lay him down, braced his neck and took him to the hospital as a precaution. The next day, a friend of his said he was okay, though a Trenton Times article said the impact had fractured his skull.

My daughter likes the feel of wind in her hair, but maybe now she will complain less about the helmet, and I'll finally be able to corral memory, paper and pen to get that new helmet on the shopping list. When life speaks, it helps to listen, and not to have headphones on.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Document Shredding & Compost Bin Event

This Saturday, September 20, 10-2, Princeton township residents can get documents shredded for free, and pick up a backyard composting bin for $20.

More info at http://www.princetontwp.org/shred_event.html.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

School Recycling Pickups Temporarily Stopped

As mentioned in a previous post, recycling at Princeton district schools was stopped in the summer of 2007. Last fall, students and staff worked hard to get recycling going again. This summer, I stopped by the bins at the high school loading dock to see how things were going. The good news was that the bins were packed with recyclables. The bad news was that, three weeks later, the same recyclables were sitting in the same bins, which meant that pickups had been stopped. The cardboard dumpster was overflowing, and recyclables were getting thrown in the trash for lack of any other option.

An email to staff brought a response. Pickups have resumed, but the recurring lesson is that any recycling program can fall apart at any time, and ongoing monitoring is needed, in-house rather than depending on interested community volunteers, to avoid lapses of this sort.

The other lesson of this incident is that government monitoring of school recycling, which may occur every year or two if at all, is very unlikely to be accurate, given that recycling is so dependent on the passion and persistence of students and staff who may come and go.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Article On Energy Meters in Today's Packet

The Princeton Packet published an article today about the Kill a Watt energy meters that are now available for checkout at the public library. The meters were donated by the Princeton Environmental Commission. Before making them available to patrons, library staff used one to find ways to save thousands of dollars in annual energy costs. The article can be accessed online at http://www.packetonline.com/articles/2008/07/15/the_princeton_packet/news/doc487bdee245e73637553299.txt

For those seeking more info on energy use of various home appliances, scroll down to the 10/21/07 post on this website, or click on "energy" on the right of this page, to see a mix of posts focused on energy conservation.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Minimizing A/C Use

In the summer heat, there are many ways a house conspires to make itself even hotter. Here are some ways to cut back on the house's heat production and reduce the need for the A/C. Most of these are minor, but their effect can add up, and they include savings of their own. I claim no expertise, only some experience and a willingness to experiment.

  • Lower the temperature of your water heater (see 1/13/08 post) to a temperature that, when you turn on the hot water for a shower, there isn't any need to dilute it with water from the cold tap. This simplifies showering as well as reduces the work your water heater needs to do.
  • Turn off the heating element in your refrigerator that heats the door (supposedly to reduce condensation on the door). If your frig has one, the button should be inside near the back, where the light bulb is.
  • Use as low-wattage a light bulb in the frig as you can, or take out the light bulb altogether. Our older frig had an incandescent bulb inside that gets searing hot during prolonged open door meditations on what to eat. This is a perfect spot for a LED light, which would not emit much heat, but they aren't available as far as I can tell.
  • Minimize the use of incandescent and halogen light bulbs, which get very hot. Many of these can be replaced with fluorescents (see 1/2/08 post) without sacrificing the quality of light.
  • When boiling water for tea, boil only as much water as you need, so that less heating is needed and unused hot water doesn't sit on the stove, heating the room. Or heat the water in a microwave with the bag inside. (Hope microwaving isn't insulting to tea afficionados.)
  • We usually associate attic insulation with keeping heat in during the winter, but attics can turn into cauldrons in the summer, and abundant insulation helps keep that heat from seeping into living spaces.
  • What does your yard's topography have to do with energy bills? Basement dehumidifiers use 600 watts when running, and often run the majority of the time in the summer. If the ground is sloping towards your house, rain is more likely to seep in next to your foundation and add humidity to the basement, causing the dehumidifier to run longer. Within four to six feet of the foundation, the ground should slope away. My house inspector told me it's okay to pile dirt against bricks, but not against wood siding.
  • Whole house fans: Very helpful, but ours is overpowered, which means it overwhelms the vents in the attic. The resultant high pressure actually pushes attic air down into 2nd story rooms. Not good, so having attic ventilation and fan power balanced is important. One thing that has worked well is to have a window fan that runs overnight, progressively cooling the house. Closing up in the morning as the day starts to heat up keeps the cool air inside.
  • I can't explain why, but we wash our dishes by hand. Maybe a bit of hand labor is relaxing; maybe the older dishwasher's noise and slowness is bothersome; maybe it's stubborn habit. It's been reported that handwashing can be more wasteful than using a newer model dishwasher, but so much depends on style. My wife uses the Niagra Falls method, in which hot water streams out of the faucet constantly until she's done. I use cold water in bursts, soaking the dishes first to soften the dirt and minimize the work. No outbreaks of the plague have been reported due to my cold water method. Even if a little more water is used in handwashing, bypassing a dishwasher saves a lot of energy and heat production.
  • Air dry clothes.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tempestuous Music at Pettoranello Gardens

My daughter was bored this past Saturday night, so I checked the calendar at www.princetonol.com, and was surprised to find a free concert of jazz being presented at the Pettoranello Gardens amphitheater. Surprisingly few Princetonians can tell you where Pettoranello Gardens is, fewer still know about its amphitheater, and of those only a small subset are aware of the jazz and other performances that periodically take place there.

You needn't learn how to spell the name, but it helps to know that this lovely spot is just across 206 from the Community Park soccer fields. Turn onto Mountain Ave, take the first right into the paved parking lot, then head downhill past the wooden sign until you reach a pond with a trail around it. The amphitheater is tucked into the berm that shields this oasis from the noise of 206. The calendar of jazz concerts this summer is at www.bluecurtain.org (Note: try https://www.facebook.com/pages/Blue-Curtain/113791645408). There may be other programming as well.

Most every Sunday morning at 8am, volunteers with the Pettoranello Foundation meet at the Gardens to tend to the landscaping, as they have for some 15 years, with help from township staff.

But I digress from the events of Saturday evening, June 14, when my daughter and I rode our tandem bike towards Pettoranello Gardens to catch the end of the show, unfazed by the storm front that loomed on the horizon. We arrived at the amphitheater at dusk, to find avant-garde alto saxophonist Oliver Lake playing with a guitarist and drummer, as lightning flashed in the background and the wind kicked up.

It was the most richly metaphorical performance I've ever heard. The wind kept blowing their written music off the stage, as audience members scrambled to retrieve them--their music all the while going places no written notes could ever convey. And seeds, probably from a cottonwood tree, swirled around them as they poured notes out into the night air. Their music and the approaching storm raged as one, with one indomitable force resisting envelopment by another.

People were reluctant to run for cover, mesmerized by the drama. Finally Lake played a short melody to end, and spoke parting words into the mic. The drummer stood up, still playing the drums, and called to the audience in semi-mock urgency to run for cover. "Grab something and run!" he said, and seconds later heavy raindrops began to fall. We biked towards home in the downpour, taking refuge at Conte's, where the closed doors and A/C made the storm seem a distant dream.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Recycling in Princeton District Schools--An Update


The schoolyear-long effort to get recycling going again in district schools can finally claim some success. Some schools, like Riverside and LittleBrook Elementary, quickly embraced recycling last fall and made it a part of everyday activity, as students learned to take recyclables to a centrally located bin that is then rolled out to the loading dock by the custodians. Recycle bins, paired with trash cans, are even showing up at special events like school picnics. In other schools, the throwaway culture has been harder to change, but persistent prompting has had an effect.

It can now be said that all schools are recycling. There are still incidents of contamination (e.g. eight big, thick plastic trash bags in a bin at the high school meant for bottles and cans), but both quantity and quality have continued to grow at the high school and Community Park Elementary--two schools that were having difficulty getting recycling going. The middle school had a dip in participation, but then rebounded.

A truck driver who picks up recyclables echoed my observations, and also suggested there are ways that the district schools could save a lot of money on waste disposal if they chose to, with consistent recycling being one of those means. One estimate I heard from the NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection is that a school district the size of Princeton's could save $10,000/year through comprehensive recycling.

We can celebrate the progress, while recognizing that there is still nothing built into the school system's modus operandi to insure that recycling will not backslide. No one in-house is checking the bins to monitor participation and quality. It is all too easy to imagine recycling falling apart without anyone in the administration or in building management knowing. The schools could easily return to the situation nine months ago, when some administrators thought schools were recycling when in fact they were not.

Still, the movement is very much in the right direction. Teachers and students and some custodians have shown strong interest and made the effort. If the school district as a whole sees it as in its fiscal and educational interest to make recycling a higher priority, the gains of the past year can be built upon.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Biking in the Mist

One of my moments of environmental awakening came as I found myself driving my car four blocks to a town meeting on sustainability. The irony of the situation struck two blocks into the drive. Why was I using a car to transport myself four blocks to a meeting whose main purpose is to figure out how we can become less dependent on fossil fuels? As it happened, I was running late, and there was a light mist that could turn into rain--two factors that make me instinctively grab the car keys. I immediately parked the car and walked the rest of the way. To my surprise, the precipitation did not penetrate my clothes.

Since then, I have gradually expanded my tolerance for biking in mist, or drizzle, or even sometimes rain. This morning, for instance, a misty moisty morning, I taxied my daughter to school on the trailer bike, and found the mist to be even enjoyable. Another time, when the mist turned to rain while heading home, we experienced an unexpected euphoria. There can be a certain laboriousness to riding a bike, but it can also bring a sense of awakening, of being more alive.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Global Warming and the Silent Scream


I'm always amazed at those who study climate change. How congenial and patient they are as they tell us of the catastrophic direction we are taking the earth. They are messengers who, like most messengers through history, are being roundly ignored by most of humanity. They must go home at night, after yet another long day of throwing compelling data at the global wall of indifference, and scream into the dark.

The Scream is a famous painting by Edvard Munch. I think of it now, and learn from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream) that its inspiration came one evening when the sky suddenly turned blood red, and he "sensed an infinite scream passing through nature." "The person in the foreground may be the artist himself, not screaming but protecting himself or itself from the scream of Nature."

That is the scream that some of us hear right now, as humanity goes about its business of slurping and shoveling fossil carbon out of the ground and spewing it from tailpipes and chimneys. How fitting that, as industrialization gained speed in the late 1800s, the source of Munch's scream was the sky, whose disturbing color may have been caused by the eruption of Krakatoa a half a world away.

Munch wrote that he was walking with two friends at the time, and that they "walked on", apparently unaffected by the scene whose visual power left Munch physically stricken. And so today we are left to ask, why do so few see and react to the emergency we face? Why do so few of us hear the scream?

Free Leaf Compost and Wood Chip Mulch

If you're looking to improve your soil or put attractive, dark mulch around your flowers and shrubs, you can get composted leaves and/or twice-ground, composted woodchips for free about 5 miles out of town at the Ecological Center in Lawrence Township. Most of Princeton's leaves go there in the fall, and if you can borrow a friend's pickup or figure out some other way of carting it back, you're in luck.

For $9/yard during weekday hours, they'll load it on your truck with their front-end loader. No cash accepted. Take a checkbook. If you want it for free, take a pitch fork or shovel along.

Location is 3701 Princeton Pike (called Mercer in Princeton), and hours this time of year are 7:30 to 2:30 M-Sat. More info are at http://www.princetonboro.org/polDoc.cfm?Doc_Id=161.

According to the man on duty, the Center gets maxed out from all the leaves coming in in the fall, and does not accept the mixture of leaves and brush the town crews collect from Princeton streets this time of year. All of that goes to a private business a mile or two further down the road.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Recycling at Outdoor Events Remains Elusive

Whether it be Communiversity, June Fete, or your school picnic, chances are that no one has made accommodations for recycling. Recycling bins, if they are present at all, are turned into trash cans by covering them with a black plastic bag so the identifying yellow is hard to see, and/or by placing them unpaired with a trash can.





This year, valiant attempts were made, in particular by Princeton native and Environmental Commission member Lexi Gelperin, to get Communiversity to integrate recycling into its operations, but results were mixed. Students ended up playing the role of "Roaving Recyclers", picking bottles and cans out of trash cans.


At the Princeton Environmental Commission table, we demonstrated the simple pairing of a recycling bin and a trash can. The recycling bin has a narrow top, well-marked, with a transparent body so the bottles/cans inside provide an additional visual cue that it's for recyclables only. When will we start seeing such pairings at public events in Princeton?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Robert Socolow--Climate Change and Deja Vu

For thoughtfulness, clarity and deep caring about climate change and its gathering impact on the planet, I recommend a careful listen to Robert Socolow, a leading researcher on what to do about all the mischievous carbon dioxide we're pouring into the atmosphere. One serendipitous aspect of my having been transported out of previous lives and plunked down in Princeton, NJ is that I get to hear people like this talk. Below are some notes:

Having come of professional age back in the 1960s and 70s, Dr. Socolow now feels a strong sense of deja vu. The issues we are grappling with now, especially energy consumption and its impact on the planet, were being discussed back in the 1970s. (For my part, I took a course at the U. of Michigan in the late 70s called "Low Energy Living") What happened next, with Reagan's ascendence in the 1980s, was a shooting of the messenger. In the process, three decades have been essentially lost, and the problems we face have only grown deeper. Interestingly, Dr. Socolow pointed out that those of us who had come to hear his talk appeared to be evenly divided between two generations--those coming of age now, and those who came of age in the 70s.

To begin, Dr. Socolow gave an accounting of where we stand. There are now 3000 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Air trapped in ancient ice suggests that in the 400,000 or so years before the industrial revolution, the earth's atmospheric CO2 oscillated between 1500 and 2200 billion tons. Since atmospheric measurements began in earnest in 1958, atmospheric CO2 has risen from 2500 billion tons to the current 3000.

These 50 years of measurements were made by atmospheric scientists based on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, a location believed to be sufficiently removed from the industrialized world to allow for accurate data. At the ceremony marking the 50th year, Dr. Socolow said "Never has the work of so few led to so much being asked of so many." The so few were the scientists who revealed the dramatic and unprecedented rise of CO2 in the 20th century. The so many are the rest of us on earth being asked to change our ways.

And how much do we need to change our ways to avoid the worst consequences of climate change? Whereas the burning of fossil fuels spewed 6 billion tons into the atmosphere in 1950, that figure is now 30 billion every year. 15 of those go into the atmosphere; eight are absorbed by the oceans (apparently with disastrous consequences for marine life), and the remaining 7 are somehow absorbed by the land biosphere.

30 billion tons averages out to about 4 tons of CO2 per person per year. So, just to hold even on emissions, each of us passengers on planet earth would need to limit ourselves to 4 tons. Compare that to what we actually use. You consume four tons if you:

  • drive a car 10,000 miles at 30 mpg
  • or fly 10,000 miles (oops, I used up my allotment flying to Rome last month)
  • or heat a typical home in an average climate
  • or use 300 kilowatt hours of electricity per month from a coal burning power plant, or 600 kilowatt hours of electricity per month generated by a natural gas plant.
And then there's your workplace. If you're associated with the university, your share of the university's energy use is 13 tons per year.

So, you see we're way over our individual allotments. Environmental values must co-habitate with others deeply held--democratic values, consumer values, and values of self-realization--that, for instance, slow our response to crisis, create an appetite for stuff, and cause us to burn energy as we travel to see the world.

But Dr. Socolow still sees reasons for optimism. The world is terribly inefficient with its energy use. Carbon emissions have just begun to be priced--already in Europe, and in less than a year utilities in NJ. If one goal is for humanity to actually start reducing its overall use of energy 50 years hence, it helps that most of the 2058 physical plant has not yet been built.

One of his main points is that solutions are not innocuous. Conservation can lead to regimentation. Renewable energy can compete with other uses for land. Nuclear power generates fuel that can be used in nuclear warfare. "Clean coal" has impacts on miners and land.

As often happens when you're trying to change the world, you find that the english language lacks current words to carry new concepts. Dr. Socolow proposes a new word for a new intellectual domain. Over the past 50 years, we've delved deeply into the history of the universe, the earth and of life itself. Can we achieve a comparable quantitative understanding of what human civilization will look like at various times in the future? This new discipline would be called prospicience--a combining of the words propect and science.

In contrast to Amory Lovins' talk, which seemed to imply that we can stop global warming without financial or personal hardship, Dr. Socolow sees solutions as possible but hard. He looks to the past to find comparable situations in which "What once seemed too hard has become what simply must be done." For precedents, he points to the abolition of child labor, the addressing of the needs of the disabled, and the mitigation of air pollution.

I'd suggest that the abolition of slavery is the most relevant precedent, since both slaves and fossil fuels have played the role of providing energy on demand. Only slowly do the beneficiaries of that energy explore the ethical implications of the comfort and convenience it brings.

One of the questions raised after the talk was why Mr. Socolow did not mention population as a factor. He acknowledged that population is a central aspect of climate change, and said that the severing of population from the discussion of energy had happened in the 1980s, and coincided with the shooting of the messenger.

Amory Lovins--Will the Future Ever Come?

Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, lives on another planet, and has spent his life encouraging us to join him. It's a much more sensible planet, where most of the intimidating problems we earthlings are struggling with--climate change, energy independence--have long since been solved. His embassy on planet earth is located 7000 feet up in the frequently frigid Rocky Mountains, where he lives comfortably and grows bananas year after year in a house so sensibly and cleverly designed it doesn't need a furnace. Inbetween banana harvests, he comes down from the mountain to point out sensible ways for humanity to avoid destroying the planet.

I witnessed his recent visit to Princeton, where his imaginative approach to increasing energy efficiency contrasted nicely with the setting--an old lecture hall lit by chandeliers fitted with wasteful incandescent light bulbs. His information-packed powerpoint presentation quickly outstripped my ability to take notes, but here is a gist:

When it comes to steering civilization and the planet clear of the looming danger of climate change, Mr. Lovins believes we have been offered a false choice. Do we want to die from climate change, oil wars, or nuclear holocaust? To avoid these unsavory options, he points to a future that is dependent neither on oil nor nuclear energy.

This better future is driven largely by negawatts, and the magical sources of this magical energy is efficiency. If you find a way to avoid burning a barrel of oil, it's the same as having produced a barrel of energy in your own backyard. Does everyone wish for energy independence? Well, there's a Saudi Arabia-sized deposit of negabarrels easily within our reach, on our home turf, right under Detroit in a rich, efficiency-laden deposit he calls the "Detroit Formation".

To access all this energy, we must first drill through thick layers of false assumptions, beginning with the assumption that climate protection is costly. On the contrary, Mr. Lovins points out that smart companies are racing for the profits to be had by becoming more efficient. DuPont, for instance, now uses 80% less energy than it did in 1990. BP increased its profits by $2 billion through efficiency improvements. IBM, ST Microelectronics, Dow, GE, Texas Instruments--all these and many others have jumped on the efficiency train in a big way, and have made money in the process.

The motherlode of negabarrels awaiting exploitation in Detroit has to do with the gross inefficiencies of the automobile. Only 0.3% of the energy used by a car actually moves the driver, whose weight is a mere pittance compared to the massive metal hulk of metal and rubber we must drag around with us on errands. "Lightweighting" is the future, which has much to do with replacing automobiles' heavy metal frames with carbon materials that are both lightweight and strong. To demonstrate the safety of lightweight car frames, he showed a spectacular crash by a race car made of carbon, from which the driver walked away unscathed. The higher cost of the frame will be offset by the savings in the much smaller engine needed to propel it.

Mr. Lovins believes the technology for radical reductions in energy use is at hand, and pointed out that, with government intervention, it took only six months for car factories to switch over to making tanks and bombers back in World War II. Conversion this time, to much more efficient cars, will be much easier, since carbon frames for cars can be made with far less equipment and robotics than metal chassis.

Though he mentioned government intervention in World War II, Mr. Lovins' philosophy is based primarily on getting government to step out of the way. He pointed to perverse incentives in 48 states that reward power companies for selling more electricity. "Let all ways to save or produce energy compete fairly," he says. "Our current energy policy is the biggest threat to our achieving rational energy security."

Another notherlode of negawatts can be found in the gross inefficiency of our electrical power distribution. According to my notes from the talk, for every 100 units of energy consumed by power plants, only 10 units actually get utilized by consumers. That would suggest that the desktop computer I'm using to write this post, which uses 150 watts of electricity, is actually producing 1500 watts worth of CO2 at the power plant. If I were using a more efficient computer, say, my old desktop, which used only 35 watts, I would in fact be reducing my carbon footprint by 1150 watts.

And therein lies the tremendous frustration I felt after Mr. Lovins' wonderfully hopeful presentation. Though his facts and figures were compelling, his words and ideas didn't magically replace the wasteful incandescent bulbs that still light that charming lecture hall at McCosh 50. We all stepped out into the night to return to homes and offices equiped with energy guzzling furnaces and air conditioners. The local auto showroom offers no deals on cars made of lightweight carbon.

In fact, the world, our world, seems to be drifting ever farther from the desired orbit. My newer computer, which I naturally assumed would be more efficient than the old behemoth it replaced, turns out to use four times more energy. The auto dealership parking lot is lined with 17 mpg minivans and SUVs, and the electronics outlet is packed with big-screen TVs. Solar panels remain too costly to install without big subsidies.

For decades, we've heard these teaser stories on the news about one scientist or another doing promising research on new technologies, alternative energy sources that show great potential but aren't quite ready for the market. And yet here we are, still driving dinosaurs and paying ever more to heat and cool our leaky caves. The artist's rendition of streamlined trucks that Amory Lovins showed us looked eerily like the futuristic vehicles I saw in magazines in the 1960s.

The future stubbornly remains an appealing drawing on a piece of paper, a mirage that keeps us trudging through the desert, a brilliant 21st century lecture deluminated and belied by 19th century light bulbs.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

How to Parallel Park in a Parallel Universe

If you don't like the sight of parking garages, and the thought of how much fossil fuel oversized cars are consuming, then the old neighborhoods of Rome can come as a relief. Narrow streets and very limited parking has created what for an American is a parallel universe populated by scooters and tiny cars.

The "smart" car--a small car with an attitude that is coming to the States this year--is a common sight. It's so short it can park like a scooter if the space is too minute for parallel parking.




I had read that Rome's streets are noisy and dangerous, but in the old district, at least, there was a lot of gentle driving going on, and the reported racket of car horns turned out to be only a periodic, polite peep.

When I was ten years old, I visited Europe and, when I wasn't throwing rocks in alpine streams in an imaginative effort to re-sink the Bismark, I was admiring the scooters that quietly zipped people around. Decades later, I have the same reaction. Motorcycles without the macho connotations.

A web search suggests that the 'smart' cars don't get particularly spectacular gas mileage--in the 30 to 40 mpg range. Scooters are up around 85 mpg.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Biking--A Slow Shift in Thinking

As you can see, now that everyone is feeling an urgency to do something about climate change, even the neighborhood lawn ornaments are taking to their bikes.

In fact, if people are changing their ways, it's hard to tell from this outpost, where the stream of cars passing by appears unabated. Even living right in town, where the shopping center is four blocks away and schools are a ten minute bike ride, there always seems to be some excuse to jump in the car. Maybe we're running late, or the clouds are threatening, and besides, it's just a short drive, not much gas consumed, so no harm done.

People are faced with a double abstraction: that the oft-declared global emergency of global warming will dramatically affect each of us and all we care about, and that our individual actions can actually affect the course of global warming. Though government can have an influence, the human impact on the planet comes down to the cumulative effect of individual actions. As individuals we feel peripheral, inconsequential, but are in fact central--the only show in town.

Self-denial is not in the national psyche, so any change in individual behavior needs to be driven by positive, self-actualizing factors rather than a willful forgoing of comfort and convenience.

Tipping the balance towards jumping on a bike, rather than crawling yet again into the stylish metal hulk, requires a cumulative change in thinking, until the pros of riding a bike in any given situation start to outweigh the cons. It helps to be aware that short, in-town drives are not good for a car, since the engine never quite warms up. The $50 refill at the gas station the other day was a fine wakeup call.

For those who can connect the dots between personal action and the nation's future, it's also possible to view walking and biking as patriotic acts, a way to incrementally reduce all sorts of undesireables: dependence on foreign oil, the national trade deficit, gas prices and inflation. There's also the unsettling thought of what sorts of corrupt regimes all that gas money is supporting.

Factor in a desire not to add to global warming, air and water pollution and the congestion of local roads, and before you know it the sway of your thinking has you on your bike, feeling empowered to change the world in some small way, immersed in the richness of the great outdoors, improving your circulation as you circulate through town.

The more one chooses the bike over the car, the more it becomes a habit, until the first response is to head for the bike rather than grab the car keys. There's also an expansion of acceptable weather that happens gradually, until even a light drizzle is no longer a deterrent. Water, I discovered after a couple years of periodically biking around town, is not toxic, and there was a raincoat hiding in my closet that is actually designed to shed it. Such are the rediscoveries that await in the long process of shedding car-dependency.

And then there is the fun aspect, which I discovered after reconditioning a trailer bike that someone had left on the curb (shop local). Get a kid on the trailer seat strong enough to contribute to the peddling, and the sensation is of flying down a sled run, or team rowing on Lake Carnegie. Even if the cold weather discourages biking to school in the morning, I can still pick up my daughter with this rig in the warmed afternoon.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Recycling and the Missing Feedback Loops

Recycling rates have dropped significantly in the past ten to fifteen years, not only in Princeton but throughout New Jersey. Nearly every county is out of compliance with state mandates to recycle.

The state recently passed the New Jersey Recycling Enhancement Act, which will raise money to support local recycling initiatives by adding a landfill fee for garbage generated in the state. Municipalities will see more money for recycling over the next year.

Sounds like a great idea, but I see the problem as having much to do with a lack of feedback at all levels of the recycling process. At the residential level, homeowners who chronically include non-recyclables in their recycling bin are not given any note telling them what they've done wrong. Though the county recently mailed a very informative photo showing what's recyclable and what is not, it's obvious that many homeowners don't look at it.

At the municipal level, Princeton borough and township recycling coordinators collect data each year on the quantities of various items being recycled in town, and send this raw data off to Mercer County. In return, the borough and township each receive annual grants of about $8000 from the state to support the coordinator positions. There appears not to be, however, any annual report generated from that data by the borough and township that would give a clear indication of trends and where to focus energy to improve participation. Without this sort of feedback loop, residents and their representatives run the risk of being unaware there is any problem.

In other words, residents receive no feedback on their recycling, and city officials apparently receive no feedback on their town's recycling. It's no surprise, then, that the town is not meeting state goals for recycling, and that the master plan for Princeton includes only boiler plate language with no indication that recycling needs to be improved.

Monday, March 10, 2008

New Way to Increase Recycling in Princeton?

Though you hear little talk about it being a problem, Princeton and just about every other town in New Jersey has for years been out of compliance with state mandates to recycle. The percentage of the solid waste stream being recycled in New Jersey has been dropping since 1995, from 45% down to 34% in 2004. More recent statistics are hard to find. The state mandate is to recycle 50% of the municipal solid waste stream.

Part of the solution to dropping participation rates may come from a new company doing business in New Jersey and nationwide. They're called RecycleBank, currently serve seven towns in south Jersey, and claim that by offering an incentive, they can often double recycling rates.

The program works something like this: Recycle Bank works with the existing waste/recycling hauler to refit their trucks, and supplies new rollout bins to residents. Recyclables are all put in one bin. The bin has a bar code, which allows the truck to identify and weigh each bin as it is unloaded into the truck. Over time, each resident will accumulate points according to the weight of materials he or she recycles. These points can then be cashed in for merchandise at a selection of retail outlets. This gives residents an economic incentive to recycle as much of their waste stream as possible.

Recycle Bank is essentially paid through the savings the hauler incurs in landfill fees, since the amount of garbage will decrease as recycling increases. Though the town can encourage the hauler to enlist in the program, it sounds like the hauler makes the ultimate decision, and may or may not want to change the existing contract it has with the town. One advantage for the hauler is that workman's comp expenses should go down, since the workmen will no longer need to lift heavy containers of recycled paper into the trucks (the Recycle Bank bins hook onto a lift fitted on the trucks).

The recycling committee of the Princeton Environmental Commission will be doing more research into this option for Princeton residents.