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 ( 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.

Update (2021): Better than the suggestions below is to use LED inserts that fit into the recessed lighting and block air from escaping.

 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

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

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!