Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Roll On, Rollout Bins, Roll On

If you live in Princeton borough and have been thinking of buying one of these rollout bins to replace your aging trash can, I'd suggest holding off awhile.
Municipalities near and far have been shifting to rollout bins for collection of trash, recyclables and yardwaste--rollout bins that are supplied by the hauler with uniform design that allows them to be mechanically emptied.
This has been the case in Princeton township for trash pickup, where private haulers contracting with individual homeowners have streamlined their operation by providing rollout bins that are designed to be picked up mechanically by the truck.
A hook on the back or side of the truck does the emptying, saving the workman's back.

Borough residents who have signed up for yardwaste collection have already experienced this approach.
With consolidation, Princeton borough and township will have to decide on one trash collection service for the whole town, and chances are good that the borough's hodgepodge of homeowner-bought containers will be replaced by a more uniform approach.

Not everyone would be happy with the change, but there are advantages to having containers that have covers to protect the contents from wind and rain, and wheels to make rolling them to the curb easier. Hopefully there would be different sizes offered, so residents who generate little waste need not have an oversized rollout bin. The best approach, environmentally, is to provide a large container for recyclables and a smaller container for trash, in order to promote less generation of waste. Municipal officials are putting a variety of service options out to bid, with some flexibility built in to accommodate conditions in both the rural and congested parts of town.

If Princeton finally enters the age of streamlined waste and recyclables collection, there will be a lot of outdated trash and recycling containers to recycle.

Update: I was wrong! After consolidating township and borough, Princeton decided that everyone in the township would have to buy their own container, of any style. So now there's a hodgepodge of containers workers have to empty into the trucks, by hand.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Nature Walk at Mountain Lakes June 24

(Also posted at
I will be leading a nature walk at Mountain Lakes Preserve on Sunday, June 24 from 10 to noon. The walk is sponsored by the Princeton Borough Shade Tree Commission. Meet at Mountain Lakes House, which can be accessed by going up the long driveway at 57 Mountain Ave in Princeton. Parking is in the gravel lot just before you reach the house.

The walk will include discussion of trees, invasive shrubs, and is also a great chance to admire the newly restored historic dams and lakes. We'll stick to main trails around the lakes, but sturdy shoes are recommended.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Riveting Detective Series Threatens To Paralyze Nation

It's time to sound a warning. There is a force of distraction afoot that I fear could incapacitate the nation at a critical juncture in its economic recovery.

I have recently come under the spell of "The Killing", a detective series that apparently began last year and concludes this Sunday. We first encountered it a couple weeks ago via netflix instant access, through which one can watch one 45 minute episode after another, without commercial interruptions.

I hear there are television series that are so good people feel they "have to watch them." In this one, the acting seemed to me so convincing, the characters so intriguingly flawed, the steady thickening and surprising twists of the plot so compelling, that I found myself feeling like the show needed ME to watch IT. I was ready to set aside my work and let the kids fend for themselves--the characters and the unsolved murder needed my full attention.

If this can happen to me, a person nearly impervious to abandoning disbelief, rarely sucked in by a movie, and who has no interest in seeking more violence and problem-filled lives to supplement what already flows nonstop into our ears from news reports, in short if such a program could take control of my psyche and all but command me to watch it, then imagine what could happen to national productivity if the more vulnerable multitudes are exposed.

The troubling implications go well beyond the threat to our work ethic. It was with considerable distress that I found my fate beginning to parallel the fate of the detectives. As the lead detective Sarah Linden became more sleep deprived, forgot to eat, and neglected her son in the obsessive search for the murderer, I too found myself living on leftovers and remaining glued to the screen right through bedtime for the kids and well into the night. As clues led them deeper into Seattle's pockets of political corruption and seedy behavior, and the 13 episodes available through Netflix left us still with the murder far from solved, we found ourselves entering seedier areas of the internet in search of free viewings of the next episodes. Scantily clads beckoned from the fringes of the screen as we clicked on yet another quasi-legal episode in the wee hours of the night.

By the time we caught up with the weekly broadcasts, the series' simple but slightly off-kilter theme music was replaying all day in my mind. There seemed no escape from the program's influence, yet now I see one ray of hope. We watched the actual broadcast of the next-to-last episode this past Sunday, and encountered for the first time the spell-breaking power of advertisements. The online episodes had been 45 minutes long because 15 minutes of advertisements had been excised. Now, if I felt myself getting sucked in, I knew there'd soon be five or six advertisements to pull me out of it.

The ads reminded me there are bigger problems in the world than who killed Rosie, like enhancing my virility through the purchase of a Lincoln Town Car or, failing that, a bottle of Viagra. And though it wasn't entirely clear that justice would be served in the plot, at least I could get a better deal on car insurance.

I'm sure this Sunday's concluding episode will deliver a great ending, but I don't feel compelled to watch it. Maybe I'll wait until it's archived somewhere on the internet. Thanks to advertisements, I have my life back, and the nation's children are more likely to get tucked into bed.

Update, June 25:  Though the case is solved, those dissatisfied with the ending suspect that the writers who had gotten the script off to such a fine start may have been killed or kidnapped before they were able to complete the series. Tune in next season as Linden and Holder go backstage in search of the culprit.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Where Princeton's Curbside Recyclables Go

A theme of this blog is to document where things we consume come from, and where things go after we're done consuming them. To that end, I organized a delegation representing the Princeton Environmental Commission, Sustainable Princeton and Sustainable Jersey to visit one of the backsides of consumerism--the Colgate Paper Stock Company, 12 miles up route 27 in New Brunswick. That's where all our curbside recyclables go after being plucked from Princeton's curbs, hauled to Trenton and stuffed into semis at a transfer station.

The trip was in part triggered by a debate about whether Princeton should ask Mercer County, which runs Princeton's curbside recycling program, to add several items to its list of accepted recyclables, in particular plastics 3-7. (For background on this subject, see previous research I've posted here and here.)

The staff at Colgate entertained our many questions, and then gave us a tour. Each semi-trailer's cargo of recyclables is weighed and then dumped on the tipping floor, where an enormous pile awaits separation. The plant can run 24 hrs/day to deal with any backlog caused by periodic breakdowns.
The mix of paper, cans and bottles--along with whatever else people throw in their recycling bins in the hopes that it will get recycled-- heads up into a cavernous space filled with conveyor belts and sophisticated sorting technology.

Spinning wheels lift cardboard out of the mix, while smaller items fall through the gaps. Elsewhere along the way, magnets pull out tin cans and aerosol cans, which get baled together.   When the recyclables pass over a roller energized to create an "eddy current", aluminum is repelled, rising upward and onto its own conveyor belt. Another mechanism has 19 tiny air jets, each with a sensor that can recognize PET plastic (#1) in the recycling stream, triggering a micro-blast of air that pops the PET plastic out of the mix faster than you can say "PolyEthylene Terephthalate."

Some materials benefit from hand sorting.
If you happen to put an aluminum tray in your bin, it ends up in this pile. Aluminum foil, trays, pots and pans all get baled together and sold separately from the higher-valued aluminum cans.

This particular machine is compressing aluminum cans into big blocks.

which look like modern art. I heard a figure of $1400/ton mentioned for aluminum cans. The energy-intensive process of making aluminum from ore dug out of the ground may have something to do with the high value fetched by recycled aluminum, which unlike many other materials can be recycled indefinitely.

Cardboard is baled separately from newsprint. The separation process isn't perfect, but close enough for jazz, or in this case China, which needs lots of cardboard to make new boxes in which to send us more stuff. I've heard that China has newer and more sophisticated paper plants than the U.S.

One thing they mentioned about paper: If it gets wet, as can easily happen in Princeton's uncovered yellow or green recycling buckets during rains, the machinery can't separate the paper as well. The portion that fails to be sorted out ends up going to the landfill. Shredded paper also tends to fall through the cracks, making it a better prospect for backyard or curbside composting.

The decision a couple years ago to switch to "single stream" recycling, in which all recyclables are mixed together at the curb, added to suspicions among some that it was all getting hauled off to the landfill. But the switch was made due to advances in separation technology and the significant savings achieved through streamlined pickup. Though some plastic can be seen in these bales of paper, the plastic can be skimmed off the top of the pulp at the paper plant. Same with those cellophane windows in envelopes.
Our #2 plastics get separated into two kinds: clear (milkjugs) and colored (e.g. laundry detergent jugs). Plastics #s 3-7 are all baled together, and typically sent overseas. We had heard rumors that the 3-7's are often warehoused and then hauled to a landfill for lack of markets, but we were assured this is not the case.

Mercer County does not include plastics 3-7, aerosol cans, and aluminum trays and foil on its list of accepted recyclables. Yet, all of these items are accepted and successfully marketed by the Colgate plant.

The bales are sized to fit snugly into semi-trailers. In the photo is a bale of large items of plastic. I see a blue top for a storage bin, and a six-pack for tomato seedlings. Even though of minor value compared to aluminum, these low-grade mixed plastics have a market somewhere in the world.
We left as we came, past the long line of semis being loaded with our recyclables--now separated, baled, and ready to be turned into something new. The visit made clear how much effort and energy goes into dealing with all this detritus of society, and for many of these materials the journey has just begun.
Concern has been expressed about whether the plastics 3-7, most of which go to China, India or elsewhere overseas, are being used in environmentally unfriendly ways. But many other materials also go overseas. This "China Shipping" truck is full of cardboard. Some 60% of recyclables from New Jersey are shipped overseas.

Neither Princeton nor Mercer County has any control over where our recyclables end up. If we decide not to recycle various materials because we don't know where they go, then most recyclables would have to be sent to the landfill. Though it may seem a waste of energy to send recyclables overseas, they likely are carried by ships that would otherwise be empty as they return to China or elsewhere to pick up more merchandise.

Plastics 3-7 represent only 1% of the materials currently coming to the Colgate plant. Staff there gave us the sense that the more of a particular material that can be collected, the more likely it can be successfully marketed, and new uses found for it. This echoes what Kevin Lyons of Rutgers University has said.

A separate but related issue is whether manufacturers can and should be required to design products and packaging so they can be more easily recycled, and reduce packaging in general. For example, one can feel good buying ecologically friendly Fair Trade coffee, but the package is seemingly designed to defeat any attempt at recycling.

Whether or not Mercer County finally adds plastics 3-7, aluminum trays and foil, and aerosol cans to its list of accepted curbside recyclables, at least we now have a better understanding of the first leg of our recyclables' journey back to utility.

Thanks to our hosts at Colgate for the tour!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Healthy Children, Healthy Planet Event Saturday

(Also posted at
It's family fun day this Saturday at Riverside Elementary, with garden tours, music performances, a plant sale, exhibits, environmental film showings and a silent auction, all part of Healthy Children, Healthy Planet 2012. I've been asked to again man a table to help gardeners with weed identification, so bring your favorite, or least favorite, mystery weed along as fodder for discussion. The address is 58 Riverside Drive in Princeton. More info at

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Grass Clippings Out of Place in the Street

The Fates have conspired to make me the designated dog walker, thereby condemning me to daily exposure to dubious yardwaste behavior. Dumping lawn clippings in the street is illegal, though I've never seen enforcement. The county extension (Master Gardeners) service recommends leaving lawn clippings on the lawn, where they quickly filter down and return to the soil. Dumped in a pile like this and left to rot, their high nitrogen  content can get washed into streams.

Either there's a new landscape service that's unaware of the law, or the process of one oblivious homeowner imitating another is at work, because there's been a proliferation of these piles, large and small, in my neighborhood.

I've heard some glowing reports on how the newer mulching mowers chop grass blades up into tiny bits that disappear into the grass, and even older mowers do a good enough job to allow leaving clippings on the lawn. If the grass is left to grow too long and there are too many clippings to leave on the lawn, the clippings make a not-so-shabby mulch for under shrubs or near the base of trees. As long as grass clippings aren't piled too thickly as mulch, they won't produce odor. It's a shame to see so many fine nutrients being dumped in the street where they become an environmental hazard, an eyesore and public burden. At least they'll end up at the composting center on Princeton Pike, but people 100 years down the road will wonder why we burned gas to haul this stuff out of town when it could be an asset in the yard.

Bikes Aplenty, Racks Afew

Maybe it was just a particularly nice day, but there looks to be a lack of bike racks on the south side of the Princeton public high school.
No problem, I guess, if people don't mind the overflow heading down the stairway.

JW Middle School, with similarly overcrowded conditions, pleaded poverty a few years back when encouraged to install additional bike racks.

Technological Innovation Helps Turn the Corner for Lempert

Yesterday, township deputy mayor Liz Lempert won the Democratic primary for mayor of Princeton by a 2:1 margin over borough councilman Kevin Wilkes.

Possibly contributing to Lempert's victory was a powerful new technology her campaign employed on election day. Drivers in rush hour traffic at Harrison St and Franklin Ave. could not help but notice the flurry of campaign signage, as human torsos were used to elevate and animate the Lempert placards, with devastating effect. Static placards staked to the ground just didn't stand a chance. If this is a sign of things to come, campaigns in Princeton will never be the same.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Troubled Beverage Containers On the Brink

A plastic bottle was apprehended at 5:45 Friday morning near the corner of Harrison and Ewing Streets. It appeared to be on the verge of escaping into the storm drain, a classic entry point to a network of pipes, streams and rivers that lead out to the ocean, where bottles like this one have been known to break down into little bits that clog the stomachs of fish, turtles and birds.

The bottle's actions were in clear violation of the local ordinance, posted for all to see on the storm drain itself: "NO DUMPING. DRAINS TO RIVER." But just like people, bottles often don't bother to read the signs.

The bottle was taken in for questioning and the standard mug shots. Though it was impossible to get fingerprints, the authorities were able to record the bottle's carbon footprint for future identification.
So many bottles, just like this one, come into our community filled with the effervescence of hope. They're given the star treatment on brightly lit grocery shelves, only to be sold into a treacherous world of consumption. Too many end up drained and discarded, left to fend for themselves on the streets of our fair town.

Just around the block an aluminum can, ironically named "Sprite", lay flattened and scarred by life on the street, teetering on the brink of slipping into the same downward spiral.

We've all seen containers like these at loose ends in Princeton, drop outs, rejects, hanging out next to curbs, where they find the insidious influences of gravity and stormwater irresistible.

I do what I can to rescue them from a life of visual and ecological vandalism, but one person walking a dog can only do so much. The government's safety net, intended to steer these troubled containers towards more productive roles in society, has long been the target of considerable skepticism. Given this grim state of affairs, it's good to know that hope springs eternal, naturally breaks down into its constituent parts, and can be recycled indefinitely.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Bovinity in the Vicinity

(Also posted at
People ask me all the time. Sure, Princeton has lots of intellectual stars, but how about cows? Is there any bovinity in the vicinity? Can Princeton do cow bells like it does Nobels?

The answer came, as most answers do, while I was doing something else, driving down the Great Road past Coventry Farm. In past years, the preserved farm had appeared to host little more than a few horses and noisy flocks of semi-wild geese. Long gone are the days when the owner successfully attracted hundreds of circling vultures by having Princeton's once copious roadkill of deer delivered to the farm.

But the other day I glanced in passing and was surprised.

There they were. Cows, or more rightly cattle, frolicking in a field, young, old, mooing, mounting, gorgeous golden brown as far as the eye could see.

This was no high brow cow pie in the sky fantasy. This was a Princeton where cows can be cows, where kids can be kids and farmers can be farmers, where intellect can take you to the stars or where a pasture on the west side of town can, at least in my case, bring back memories of a childhood visit to a farm in Kansas, dodging cowpies to get to the fishing hole and then returning at dusk to watch, on a little black and white TV, the first man step on the moon. Thank you, cattle, for that.

After such a dose of unreal reality, it was a shock to return to the road, where the machine world pounded by, in a hurry to be somewhere else than where it was a minute ago.

I clambered back up the bank for one last glance.
If this be a return of Princetons past,

Then we're no longer the type
To be stereotyped.

Step aside Texas.
We're the new nexus,

With fields tread
By grass-fed tawny reds,

And still endemic
Fodder academic

To perplex us.

Polling Place Locations for Tuesday's Primary

If you've misplaced the sample ballot that supposedly came in the mail for tomorrow's primary, info on where to vote can be found at this link. Some locations have changed since the last election.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Beloved Granola Undergoes Therapy

One of the granola dispensers in the bulk section at the Whole Earth Center has been made conspicuous by its absence in recent weeks. The container has long held a granola affectionately known as Honey Gone Nuts, a pillar of stability in a sea of culinary fads and changing tastes. Despite its whimsical name, it has consistently eschewed such frills as raisins and coconut, earning my lasting allegiance with a wholesome balance of classic ingredients.

Over the past year, however, this stalwart among granolas grew increasingly reluctant to flow out of its bulk container. Prodding was often necessary, and as blockages became more frequent, I sought the advice of an employee, who showed me the sweet spot on the side of the container where a deft blow would consistently loosen the contents and resume flow. In recent months, shopping for this beloved cereal had become increasingly problematic, involving holding a bag under the spigot with one hand, banging the bin repeatedly with the other, all the while preparing a response in case any passerby asked what I was doing.

I suppose it was inevitable that the cereal would eventually cease flowing altogether. Two weeks ago, my bag of tricks--the thumps, tilts and shakes that had long served--all proved futile. I alerted an employee, and was not surprised to see a conspicuous gap in the granola lineup several days later.

We expect granola, or any other food item stocked on the grocery shelves, to be compliant, to give itself up to our appetites without resistance of any sort. Certainly there have been instances in which packaging has gone rogue, stubbornly foiling efforts to access the food within. Past encounters with obscure brands of boxed cereals come to mind, in which poorly formulated glues rendered the contents accessible only by reducing the box and inner plastic sheathing to tatters.

But to have the food itself resist purchase is something new, and we must not ignore the implications. It would be easy to dismiss this as an isolated incident, a minor bit of irony in which some obscure worker, perhaps influenced by the granola's name, progressively went nuts with the honey over a period of months, adding more and more until the granola congealed into a hardened mass. I wonder if I, like many others, took this cereal's seemingly unshakable balance too much for granted, failed to see beneath its consistent delivery of sustenance a nature made fragile by stresses affecting us all as the very fiber of civilization continues to unravel. We want food to fill our needs, but surely food has needs, too.

Whether this breakdown is a response to larger societal issues--an early act of cereal disobedience--or a matter of long-disguised inner contradictions finally coming to the fore, I hope my favorite granola will get the help it needs to cope in this stressful age, to regain balance and find its way back to that old, dependable, giving self, when its name evoked whimsy rather than destiny. My mornings haven't been the same without it.