Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Electronics and Hazardous Waste Recycling this weekend

This television has not been picked up by the trash collectors for two weeks, which is the way it should be. There's an ordinance that requires TV's to be recycled. They can be taken to one of Mercer County's three electronics and hazardous waste recycling days per year, one of which is coming up June 29, or taken to Best Buy, which also recycles them free of charge. (Best to give Best Buy a call ahead, just to confirm.)

The hole in the back of this particular TV suggests that someone came along and took the copper coil, to sell as scrap. Related post here.

Harry's Brook and the Milky White Tale

Two posts (here and here) at on a recent spill of unknown nature in Harry's Brook, discovered where it "daylights" at the corner of Harrison Street and Hamilton Ave.

Harry's Brook drains the eastern half of Princeton, with various "headwaters" at Palmer Square, Princeton High School, and Bunn Drive. It flows into Carnegie Lake near Kingston. The branch that drains downtown flows through underground pipes before emerging at Harrison Street.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Terhune Orchards--Vision Meets Reality

A mural on the side of a building next to the Terhune Orchards' parking lot brings back memories of a house I saw once in Ohio whose side was painted to show the view one would have if the building wasn't there.

Much of life is spent envisioning a world and then trying to figure out how to get past the walls that stand between vision and reality. At least at Terhune, reality closely matches the vision. Walk around the side and you find a similarly harmonious scene with a red building, a pond, dirt road and farm animals. The mural was painted by an employee with an artistic bent.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Foodwaste Recycling in Princeton and New York

The word from near and far is that composting kitchen scraps makes sense. Far might be San Francisco and Seattle, where keeping food waste separate from the trash is mandatory. Closer to home, a neighbor who recently enrolled in the local curbside collection program was amazed at how little trash he produces now that his food scraps and other organics like paper napkins and stained pizza boxes are going in the green rollout bin. He only has to put his trash can out every other week.

Meanwhile, in New York City, pilot foodwaste collection programs have shown unexpectedly high levels of participation, and plans are afoot to shift to citywide collection, with voluntary participation likely to transition to mandatory in a few years' time. The city's million tons of foodwaste/year, currently sent to landfills as far away as Ohio, is now being seen as an energy source for generating electricity.

Landfilled foodwaste produces methane gas, a potent climate-changing gas. Though some of the methane can be recovered and used for energy, much of it leaks into the atmosphere. During a tour of a landfill near Atlantic City this past weekend, the director of the operation estimated only 30% of the gas is being collected and utilized, despite an elaborate system of pipes running through the landfill to extract the gas.

Backyard composting is the most ecological approach, because there's no transport of heavy food scraps involved, and paper napkins, etc. can be included. But unless someone comes up with a little "Backyard Composting for a Better Planet" sign for people to put in their yards, it's hard for a largely invisible movement to catch on. People imitate their neighbors, for better or worse, and the green bins are a visible expression of environmentalism that can be used to galvanize neighborhoods to increase participation. The town's web page promoting signup for the program drives this point home, asking the question "Are you seen with the green?" In a similar vein, a distinctive look helped the Prius gain dominance among hybrids.

Other green initiatives, like energy conservation, struggle in part because their results are not visible.  If our energy bills showed how each of us rated compared to average home consumption, we might be more motivated to save energy. If a building showed how much energy it was using in real time, on a monitor in the lobby rather than on a meter in the back alley, there might be more motivation to reduce the number. But most of the environmental good news and bad news remains hidden. The green foodwaste bin is a small but growing exception.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Howell Living History Farm Ice Cream Social

Once upon a time, in a pleasant valley approximately one century, thirteen years and thirty two minutes away (according to Google Maps), farm friends flocked to savor homemade ice cream.

The wheat danced in the breeze,

as guests, having traveled google map's 32 minutes by car, made the final 113 year leg of the journey by horsedrawn carriage.

past strange machines,

a room for harnessing oxen,

a sheep shearing gizmo,

and a chicken coop,

until they could hear the steady thumping of a one-cylinder engine from a distant century,

which drove the ice cream maker

that fed the socializing multitudes ice cream with strawberries, chocolate syrup and sprinkles on top.

It was all the milkers could do to keep up.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mosquitoes and Princeton's Outdated Recycling Containers

There must be defenders of Princeton's yellow and green recycling buckets, which have served long and fairly well, but it's easy to draw up a list of their drawbacks, when compared to the rollout bins that are standard equipment in most recycling programs.

  • Lacking wheels, these buckets can pose a challenge for the elderly, or for most anyone who is less than musclebound, to carry out to the street.
  • Lacking lids, they leave the contents exposed to rain and snow, which makes the paper heavier to haul and harder to sort at the recycling plant.
  • Since many Princetonians store the buckets outside, rain also accumulates in tin cans and other recyclable containers, providing breeding grounds for the asian tiger mosquitoes that need very little water to breed, bite during the day (native mosquitoes are active at night), and have been moving north into New Jersey. 
  • Being round, the buckets get blown over on windy days and roll into the street, spilling their contents and blocking traffic.
  • Wind can also blow paper and plastic bottles out of overfilled buckets. Any loose bottles end up going down stormdrains and into local waterways, eventually contributing to plastic pollution in the oceans.
  • The original rationale for separate yellow and green bins is no longer relevant with single-stream recycling. 
  • Lacking attachments for mechanical emptying, the buckets must be lifted manually, potentially leading to increased worker back injury over time. 
The potential for back injury may be reduced now that there's less paper and glass. (May as well look on the bright side of the status quo, since change comes so slowly.) Riding my bike on Wiggins one day, I saw an elderly woman struggling to retrieve her buckets from the curb. She politely refused help, saying she had worked out a system to manage. Coping with minor and less minor annoyances is what we all do, and likely will continue to do for years to come.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

The Back Side's Revenge

With the remnants of tropical storm Andrea having just passed through, it's time for another segment of Stump the Stars, with water being the stumper and whatever architect designed the local art museum being the stumpee. Of course, it may have been the builder who got the slant of the walkway a tiny bit wrong, which is all it takes to have runoff headed down the back stairway into the basement.

Hopefully the result was nothing like the flooding at the high school two years ago, during a much heavier rain.

There are a couple themes here. One is how good the elements are at fooling people. It doesn't take any great skill for water to outsmart top architects. All it has to do is flow downhill. Similarly, carbon dioxide is fooling most of humanity simply by quietly drifting up into the atmosphere.

The other theme is how frequently the back side of things eludes notice. It's these back stairwells that seem not to have been thought out sufficiently, while great attention is given to entryways and facades. In a similar vein, those in charge of recycling programs often forget to check out back to see if recyclables are actually making it to the back loading dock for weekly pickup. The sidewalks in town that become overgrown and impassible are on the side of the property not frequented by the owner. And of course the biggest gap in attention is the mischief rising from the back side of machines, e.g. car tailpipes, smokestacks and furnace chimneys.

What happens on the back side can circle around and take its toll on the front side, as in when floodwater entered from the back of the high school performing arts center, causing enough damage to the wooden stage that it had to be replaced. Hurricane Sandy, too, can be seen this way. Influenced by transformations of climate bred on the backside, it barged in America's front door.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Hands and Mind--Making Stuff and Making Connections in a Consumer Society

Several things in this photo, taken at the Healthy Children, Healthy Planet event at Riverside Elementary School a couple weeks ago, exemplify aspects missing from our suburban lives. Tedious manual labor and tightly confined animals, some might say. But what I see is the chance for kids to interact with animals beyond dogs and cats. There's also the patient making of things--that steady application of attention that we've out-sourced to machines, and sweatshops in the Philippines. And then there are clear connections made, between grass, sheep, wool-making and the clothes we wear.

If we had to pay the real cost of fossil fuels, we'd use our remarkable adaptive capacities to find ways to use them less, and might in the process rediscover some long lost satisfactions. Some of this is already happening. Paris got in the news recently for its use of miniature sheep to mow lawns. Hens are becoming more popular as backyard "pets with benefits", offering daily demonstrations of how the random bounty of a yard--grubs, insects and earthworms--can be transformed into eggs.

The patient making of things is a bit harder to "in-source", given people's harried lives. But one approach is to recruit what I call the "second self"--the part of you that does work automatically while leaving the mind free to focus on other things. Hand-washing dishes, hanging clothes up to dry--these means of disengaging from the use of climate-changing fuels can be tedious, mind-numbing tasks or they might slow one down long enough to actually listen to some music, have a conversation or catch the news on the radio. If, while doing the mundane task of washing dishes, I suddenly have some idea or insight worth writing down, I wonder if it would have occurred on its own, or if it is the product of both hands and mind. It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that each informs the other, given that hand and mind have evolved together, and largely define what it means to be human. Doing more varied tasks with the hands could jog the mind into more varied thoughts.

The ongoing expansion of convenience relegates hands increasingly to the role of consuming rather than making. Sound recognition may even bypass the remaining manual function of thumbing texts and typing on a keyboard. Similarly, once productive yards now do little more than flatter the house and consume time and chemicals. That's part of the challenge of sustainability, to figure out how a yard and hands can regain some of their productive roles.