Friday, August 31, 2012

The Liabilities of Adlibbing

Clint Eastwood's rambling performance at the Republican Party convention last night brought back memories of Chevy Chase's similarly rambling and awkward Senior Day speech at Princeton University a few years back. Chase claimed to have accidentally left his speech at home in his bathroom, which was about as funny and informative as anything else he could think of to say, his imagination failing to respond to the spur of the moment. Eastwood addressed some of his words to an empty chair placed to the left of him, in which he pretended President Obama was sitting. The effect was of a ventriloquist with his sidekick puppet, though it came off as hard-hearted because usually the puppet pokes fun at the ventriloquist, instead of the other way around.

Eastwood also poked fun at Obama's environmentalism, as did Romney later in the evening. Climate change got a good laugh, and caring for the planet was portrayed as contrary to the needs of families. There is always a need to split the world into competing kingdoms and then stage a fight. People oppose nature to nurture, environment to economy, capitalism to governmental regulation, when these opposites are in fact complementary parts of a whole.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Christie and Climate Change

About a month ago, Governor Christie stopped by Contes Pizza in Princeton.  I found myself standing next to him near the cash register, while we both waited for pizzas to go. My impulse, not acted upon, was to offer to help him save the Republican Party from its denial of climate change. No one talks a better game of making tough choices than Governor Christie, and acting to slow climate change before it spirals out of control, stripping New Jersey of its beloved beaches in the process, is the toughest and most necessary choice of all.

To hear him speak, as he did at the Republican Party convention last night, is to hear a man speaking passionately about a subject he refuses to name. In taking on the really tough choices, he said, it's been easy for leaders to say "Not us, not now." "Now it's up to us," he says, the "grandchildren of the Greatest Generation", to eschew creature comforts, "stand up and make the tough choices." Let us "never be the victims of destiny; always the masters of our own." "Answer the call as a generation," for the sake of "our children and grandchildren."

A call to bold action and personal sacrifice for the sake of posterity? A call to consciously steer destiny rather than let the unintended consequences of our collective actions do permanent harm to future generations? There is no subject for which that sort of talk fits better, no tougher political topic given the entrenched resistance to sacrifice and collective effort, no issue with higher stakes for our shared future, than the irreversible destabilizing of climate. Christie, with his volcanic power as a speaker, his rep for shaking things up, could lead his Party out of its fantasy world of denial, and thereby help rather than hinder the global effort to finally take responsibility for our collective impacts.

Maybe, if he refuses to declare the most fitting subject for his gallant words, a sign could be placed in front of the lectern at his speaking engagements with words in parentheses:

(Climate Change)

Princeton's Recycling Future

While traveling, I had a chance to compare some other recycling programs to ours. In Ann Arbor, MI, where I spent a couple decades, they use rollout bins for everything--one for trash, one for mixed recyclables, and one for yardwaste.

Ann Arbor was one of the early adopters of curbside recycling in the U.S., which I know because some friends started the pilot program in 1978, and got me out there heaving baled newspapers up onto a flatbed truck converted to the purpose.

My educated guess is that Princeton will sooner or later be using rollout bins like these town-wide, rather than the hodge podge assortment of trash containers and the uncovered yellow and green recycling buckets. I'm also guessing that Mercer County, which runs Princeton's recycling program, will eventually add plastics 3-7 to its list of accepted recyclables, along with aerosol cans and aluminum trays and foil. These items are recycled if you put them in the bin, but you aren't supposed to put them in because they aren't on the official list. My visit to Ann Arbor and Cleveland Heights reinforced the sense that these items are now routinely recycled by municipalities across the country, though styrofoam is often excluded due to its bulk.

It was interesting to see Ann Arbor's list of recyclables including large plastic items, like those patio chairs and laundry baskets that tend to break after awhile.

During our visit back in June to the sorting facility that Princeton's recyclables go to, I noticed these sorts of large plastics getting baled up and apparently marketed. Hopefully, Mercer County's list of accepted recyclables will eventually catch up with reality.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stuff Finds New Lease On Life

It's rumored that some people use garages to park cars in, but ours somehow got filled with accumulated stuff, at least until a recent garage sale. Much of it I had rescued from the curb, lest perfectly useful items end up in the landfill. Some items had needed minimal repairs, like a wobbly but unblemished kitchen table that only needed its legs tightened. Others, like a collection of bentwood chairs, I had mild ambitions to eventually recane, but finally sold to someone with a similar vision.

This plastic bin of assorted magician's equipment went through a several year's journey, from neighborhood curb to my basement, to my garage, to the yardsale, and finally back out to the curb again. During that time, I had learned that both Steve Martin and Johnny Carson began their careers learning magic tricks as kids. I had enough curiosity to keep the materials, but not enough to open the book, which got rained on the night after the yard sale. Someone finally took them after two days on the curb.

Though some stuff acquired at garage sales may simply relocate from one garage to another, other items were clearly going to be put to use, like the round table a neighbor passing by was so happy to buy because she had been wanting one for a certain spot in her house and the one I had rescued and put out for the sale was perfect!

And then there was the one that got away. I had retrieved a big, black metal frame meant to support a swinging chair, and had held on to it, wondering what sort of chair would fit on it. A woman spotted it among the freebies at the yardsale, told my daughter she had a chair for it, but then disappeared and didn't return to pick it up. The next day, having finally lost hope, I put it out on the curb, knowing it would be coveted by one of the scrap guys who ply Princeton's streets in well-aged pickup trucks. One showed up, and as he was lifting it into the truck, I asked him where he takes the stuff and how much he makes per load. He said he used to go to a scrapyard in Trenton, but now drives up to Hillsborough, where he typically makes $200 on a full load.
An hour after he drove off, the woman returned, wanting to take the frame. Two years it waited next to the garage for a chair to make it complete, impervious to the weather, it's gleaming finish and seeming potential intact, only to have its keeper give in to purging fever an hour too soon. More kind, in retrospect, would have been to have charged for it, so the woman could have made her interest more clear.

All in all, though, the morning was well spent, and my daughter was happy with both the hauling away and the haul that was made.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Plastic Cups Speak Up About Recycling

Will the real #1 (PET) plastic cup please stand up? Well, they're all transparent, they're all standing, but only the one on the left is a #1. As readers of this blog know, Mercer County, which runs Princeton's curbside recycling program, asks us not to recycle plastics #3-7, even though these plastics are accepted and marketed at the sorting plant in New Brunswick. No verifiable reason has been given for this resistance to including the higher numbered plastics in our recycling bins. I have spoken up for inclusion, but have been unable to overcome an entrenched notion that higher numbered plastics are in some way less environmentally friendly and therefore deserve to go to the landfill.

Among the rejected is the second cup here, a #5. Used by Starbucks, it defends itself in small print near the bottom of the cup: "This polypropylene cup uses 14% less plastic and creates 45% fewer carbon emissions than a cup made from PET." Take that, all you #1s out there.

The third cup, a #6, has nothing to say for itself, but the last cup there, a #7 with the trademark "Greenware",  declares itself to be eco-friendly, environmentally sustainable, compostable, and made in the U.S.A., entirely from plants. That one's headed for my compost pile to see if it actually decomposes.

If any other plastic cups would like to speak up on this issue, send in a comment.

Recycling--Sorting Fact From Fiction

The following appeared as a column in the July 31 Princeton Packet, with the title "Sorting out the recyclables issue".

This past January, I wrote a column for the Packet about the disparity between what Princeton residents are told to put in the yellow and green recycling buckets, and what is accepted at the sorting plant that takes our recyclables. Mercer County, which runs Princeton’s curbside recycling program, excludes plastics #3-7, empty aerosol cans, and aluminum trays and foil from its list of accepted recyclables, even though the sorting plant accepts them. It was interesting that items I had long thought to be contaminants in the recycling stream were actually getting separated out and successfully marketed by the plant.

Much to my surprise, the column set off quite a controversy. Should these additional items be added to the county’s official list? Since many Princeton residents, from my observations, ignore the list and fill the buckets with whatever they think looks recyclable, the controversy was limited to the subset of humanity that is actually trying to do the right thing.

The discussion quickly became contaminated with dubious claims, demonstrating again the power of misinformation to needlessly polarize our world, locally and nationally. Truth has become devalued as just another opinion. People can claim whatever they want, and needn’t feel regret if the claim has no basis in fact.

As the plot thickened into a gumbo of mumbo jumbo, I decided to research the matter further, culminating in a trip to the Colgate sorting facility 12 miles up the road in New Brunswick, where our curbside recyclables are taken. Recycling, with its ever-changing markets and rapidly evolving sorting technology, provides an excellent training ground for developing humility, flexibility and detachment when seeking the truth. The path from uncertainty to relative certainty requires conversations with many sources, and what’s true now could always change later on.

Many municipalities and counties in the area accept all plastics #1-7 for recycling. Among these are Philadelphia, Newark, Montgomery, and Somerset. Morris County excludes #3 and 6, but includes the others. Though of lesser value than plastics #1 and 2, the 3-7 plastics do find markets, often overseas. Concern has been expressed about whether the plastics 3-7, most of which go to China or India, are being used in environmentally unfriendly ways. It’s nearly impossible to know. Given a global economy, neither Princeton nor Mercer County has any control over where its recyclables go, and destinations can shift with the markets. Since many other recyclables also go overseas, any concern about end usage would render much of our current recycling stream suspect.

After being sorted, our recyclables are sold to the highest bidder. Some 60% of recyclables in our region head overseas, often on ships that would otherwise be returning empty to their home ports. That cardboard you put out on the curb may be headed to China, where paper plants that are newer and more sophisticated than ours will make it into new boxes to fill with more stuff for us to buy. If more plastics #3-7 are collected, businesses closer to home might be more motivated to utilize it.

At the sorting plant in New Brunswick, our recyclables head up a conveyor belt into a cavernous enclosure filled with 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. Aluminum cans fetch the highest price, and may show up in the store as new cans in as little as 60 days.

Another sorting 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, like large plastics and aluminum trays, are still hand sorted.

When asked what contaminants cause problems at the plant, the Colgate staff mentioned plastic bags and metal bars like crowbars, both of which can gum up the sorting equipment. Wet paper tends to drop down through the sorters and end up in the trash--one of a number of arguments for eventually replacing our yellow and green buckets with rollout bins with covers.

There are a number of changes that would make curbside recycling work better. One would be a regulatory expectation that manufacturers produce products and packaging that are easily recycled. Another would be to eventually replace the county’s yellow and green buckets, which tip over in the wind, roll out onto the street, and let the rain in. Rollout bins with attached lids are the industry standard.

Another important step will be the composting of food waste. Backyard composting is much easier than people think, and Princeton’s alternative curbside collection of foodwaste has gotten good reviews. Many trash cans in public places are stuffed with paper products that should be getting composted with the foodwaste rather than landfilled.

If all of this comes to pass--if manufacturers take more responsibility, if trash can be freed of foodwaste, and as sorting technology continues to improve--it is conceivable we may reach a point where the distinction between trash and recyclables will largely dissolve, and all of our discards outside of electronics and toxics will merge into one stream headed to a plant for sorting.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Poem of the Puzzled Bottletop Recycler

Conflicting information flows freely about whether plastic bottletops are recyclable. Thus far, what's clear is that rumors on the subject can be recycled indefinitely. Logic suggests that if the ring that the top was connected to is recycled, then the top must be recyclable as well. Others say that the rings and tops are taken off at the plastics recycling plant, but it's not clear if they get recycled or landfilled. One lively notion has it that the tops, screwed tightly back on empty bottles, fly off with explosive force when machines compress the bottles into bundles for shipping. The latest I heard, during our tour of the sorting plant, is that the plastic bottle tops fall through the sorting equipment and end up in the garbage. You can put them in anyway, but they may not find a future use.

Thus, a poem:

They recycle me.
They recycle me not.
They recycle me!
They recycle me not!!
They recycle me................................