Saturday, December 17, 2011

Philadelphia Story, Part 2--Waterworks

The first post entitled Philadelphia Story, as some readers may remember, was a tragicomic tale of the hazards of parking in the historic district. That drama took place on the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin Bridge, Penn's Landing, Delaware River side of town, where I-95 streams through. That was the only part of Philadelphia I knew until recently, other than WHYY's inauspicious Shadow Traffic reports, which detail the endless permutations of rush hour congestion.

One beautiful fall day last month, some friends introduced me to Philadelphia's flip side, west of the Delaware and just beyond the Art Museum, along the Schuykill River. A google-eyed view of Philadelphia shows the Delaware and Schuykill rivers looking like two sides of a vase, with downtown in the middle. Traveling the I-95 corridor and occasionally straying downtown, one sees only one side of the vase.

To visit the Schuykill River side, then, is akin to getting a glimpse of the far side of the moon.

We owe the lovely vista in this photo to the water pollution that, by the late 1700s, forced Philadelphia to seek a cleaner drinking water supply. The Schuykill River was dammed in 1822, and land upstream was purchased to prevent polluting development.
All that land is now the long and lovely Fairmount Park, with bike trails extending all the way westward to Valley Forge. The impoundment is used for rowing races.

Until 1909, the dammed water passed through a Waterworks, turning big drums that in turn pumped fresh drinking water up the hill to a reservoir. From there it was piped down into the city. All very elegant and sustainable. You can see the whole layout in the photo, just as it once looked, except that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is perched on the hill where the reservoir used to be (upper left), and the downtown in the distance has sprouted skyscrapers.

Inside the Waterworks is a first rate, federally run interpretive center that explores all matters having to do with water. You can learn where wastewater goes after it leaves one's house, how the city is trying to reduce stormwater runoff,

and how the shad that once migrated upstream in enormous numbers each spring to spawn played a critical role in keeping George Washington's troops alive at Valley Forge. (Presumably the dam has fish ladders to allow them access these days.)

Along with the appealing ingenuity and sustainability of 19th century technology was a greater valuing of public spaces, and a belief that beauty and utility can cohabit in architectural design.

All in all there was much to cheer about during this visit--a beautiful public space on a beautiful day, and we found our car just where we had left it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Are Rollout Bins Right For Princeton?

If New York is the city that never sleeps, Princeton has become the town whose streets are never clean. The dumping of yardwaste in the streets is now year-round. Municipal fear of taxpayer outrage may be the reason that ordinances meant to control the dumping activity, and to bring Princeton in to compliance with state regulations, go unenforced.
There are places in America that have clean streets. I know because sometimes I jump on my horse and ride towards the horizon to see how other people live, and can say definitively that we can rescue ourselves from this self-imposed squalor.

Take San Francisco as an example. Once a week, three rollout bins are placed at the curb. Gray is for trash. Blue is for recyclables. Green is for a combination of foodwaste and yardwaste.

Because the yardwaste is containerized, collection is efficient and the streets remain clean. Of course, this neighborhood has fewer trees than Princeton does and thus less generation of leaves and brush. But there are many tree-packed municipalities that don't allow dumping of leaves on the street, and instead expect residents to compost most of them in the backyard and place the rest in rollout bins and yardwaste bags at the curb.

This sign shows what goes in the green bin: food-soiled paper, food, and yard trimmings. All of this gets composted outside of town. Princeton township began offering this service last year, and recently extended service to anyone in the borough willing to pay $20 a month. (More on this in another post.)

One of the benefits of rollout bins is that their contents are mechanically emptied into the trucks. Princeton's recyclables and the borough's trash are lifted manually into trucks, which puts workers at risk of back injury. The lack of rollout bins also means that residents must do heavy lifting to get their trash and recyclables to the curb.

Some trucks can actually grab the rollout bin at the curb and dump its contents without having a worker on the street.

When in the past I've recommended that Princeton shift over to rollout bins, the idea was reflexively rejected due to concerns about the cost of this sort of truck. Imagine my surprise when I saw one of these trucks collecting trash in Princeton township. Midco, one of the private haulers township residents can contract with, has obviously seen the cost savings in this approach.

Consolidation of Princeton township and borough into one entity offers an opportunity to reshape services. Rollout bins have worked elsewhere and are now being utilized by private haulers in the Princeton area. It's time the municipality look at ways to put them to use.

Monday, December 05, 2011

What's Recyclable and Where Our Recyclables Go

If you live in Princeton, you may occasionally wonder what items are supposed to be going in the green and yellow recycling bins residents put at the curb every other Monday. Though local government websites are useful, they may not for various reasons be able to provide the most up to date information. Here's what I was able to find out recently:

Mercer County: The county, not Princeton township or borough, is in charge of the curbside recycling program. (Note: The county's recycling website was revamped in late Feb/2012. Its list of recycling do's and don't's can now be found here.)

That list is useful to some extent, but the private company that the county contracts with to pick up the recyclables posts its own list, which I've pasted below in quotes. (If you like pictures, here's a downloadable flyer.) The hauler lists several additional items as recyclable, which I've marked in red, that the county does not include on its list.

(The list below is from the Central Jersey Waste and Recycling website)

"The following material can be recyced ONLY if they are clean (free of food waste.) A good rinse should be sufficient for most items!
• Plastics marked with numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (but not compostable #7)
• Aluminum cans
Aluminum trays and foil (cleaned)
Aerosol cans
• Steel and tin cans
• Glass jars and bottles
• Metal lids
• Newspapers and inserts (remove plastic sleeves)
• Magazines, catalogs, phone books
• Office and school paper
• Cardboard
• Boxboard (cereal boxes, etc.)
• Brown paper bags
• Paperback books
• Paper-only junk mail"

Update, Aug/2012: I've adjusted this list to reflect changes on the Central Jersey Waste website. They've added #6 plastic as acceptable, and removed plastic lids from their list.

Why the contradictory lists? It turns out that the county is reluctant to expand its list, in part because any change requires an amendment to the Mercer County Solid Waste Management Plan. The county also wants to make sure there is a longterm market for any item it adds to the list.

Where our recyclables go: The hauler (Central Jersey Waste and Recycling) takes the recyclables down to Trenton, then transfers them to semis to haul them up to the Colgate Paper Stock Company in New Brunswick, where all the various recyclables are separated out. Colgate is a so-called MRF (materials recovery facility) that has its own list of items it accepts or rejects for recycling. That list includes plastics numbered 1-7.

Plastic lids: I always thought that, since there are rings on the plastic bottles that are made of the same material as the lid, then the lid must be recyclable along with the bottle. The Colgate sorting plant, though, makes it clear they don't want plastic lids. What I've been told is that the rings are detached from the bottle by the plant that makes new products from the bottles.

Plastic bags: Many bins put curbside have recyclables in plastic bags. A representative of Colgate told me that plastic bags occasionally gum up their sorting machinery. He also said that though they accept all numbered plastics 1-7, the plastics 3-7 end up getting shipped out of the country, to destinations and fates unknown. 

Styrofoam: Some residents put styrofoam (#6) out for recycling. I've heard contradictory opinions about its recyclability. This link, which has info on what various plastics are used for, says styrofoam is one of the more useful plastics to recycle. But obviously it's so bulky that it's hard to transport efficiently, which may be why the Central Jersey hauler excludes it from its list.

Princeton Township has a web page with lots of links to info on recycling, though its list, like the county's, does not include all the items that are accepted by the private companies actually doing the recycling.