Thursday, August 29, 2013

World, Heal Thy Self--TV Energy Consumption

Sometimes, the world exhibits self-repairing qualities. Most recently at our house, a laptop and a garbage disposal stopped working, then miraculously started working again days later. The power of procrastination!

These mysterious self-repairing qualities may well have been at work in the TV showrooms out on Route 1, where a problem I identified two years ago has been solved without the need of personal intervention.

When we bought our flatscreen TV a couple years ago, the energy-efficient LED TVs were a minority at BestBuy, with plasma and LCDs dominating. It was annoying (a word so frequently used by my teenage daughter that I've started using it, too) that the displays at that time offered no information about energy use, and the salesmen were clueless. I took a Kill-a-Watt meter along on my next visit, and did some measurements. The LEDs were the most efficient, the LCDs less so, and the plasmas were the biggest energy hogs.

Since then, I've occasionally thought of launching a campaign to get energy info into the display rooms, so customers could factor energy use into their choice of TV. After meeting a camera salesman at Best Buy who seemed very progressive in his views, I decided to stop in and see if he might be an ally for my proposal. (Photo's actually of Target, where I happened to have my camera).

Turned out the problem has already been solved. LEDs have taken over the market. LCDs are nearly gone, and just a few plasmas are still being sold to those who want its slightly superior image quality. I was told that OLEDs, a new form of LED that combines the best aspects of LED and plasma, is now becoming available--in short supply and expensive, but all that can quickly change in the electronics world.

Furthermore, each display TV is now tagged with energy usage, with the few remaining plasmas consuming twice as much as the now dominant LEDs. Job done! That was easy. I wish all problems could be solved by doing nothing for two years and then checking back.

One question is whether the Energy Guide labeling hastened the ascendancy of energy-efficient LEDs, or if increasing efficiency of the TVs made stores realize that they now had something to brag about.

Some more info on recycling old TVs at Best Buy: They accept the old style TVs up to 32" screen size, as long as the TV is intact (TVs put out on the curb often are broken into to take the copper coil behind the picture tube). They accept all sizes of flat screens.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Standing Ovation for the Summer Courtyard Concert Series

An afternoon rain drove the music indoors, but dampened no spirits at the Princeton Shopping Center's last concert of the summer. The grooves of the Junior Mack Blues Band are contagious, and we should all be so lucky as to be so optimally infected. Living reproduced days, exposed mostly to reproduced sounds emanating from machines, we all too easily forget the joy of live music. There's pleasure to be read in the faces of the musicians, and a hot tub of groove to soak our souls in. Live music, well delivered, speaks to the body and the heart and says, "Where have you been all this time?"

So, a standing ovation to Junior Mack, and to the Arts Council of Princeton and all its sponsors, who make possible this salve for summer doldrums.

Cartoneros and Sustainability in Buenos Aires

A trip to see the inlaws in Buenos Aires, 5500 miles to the south as the 767 flies, offered a chance to check out various aspects of sustainability as practiced in Argentina. It must, of course, first be said that a red knot, the unassuming bird that makes a strategic stop in New Jersey each May on its yearly 9300 mile migration from the southern tip of Argentina up to the arctic, flies in a much more sustainable manner than a Boeing 767 jet. That said, here's what was witnessed.

As far as we could tell, separating of recyclables from trash is still not done by residents, but remains the job of "cartoneros", who nightly go through trash on the streets in search primarily of cardboard and paper. Plastic bottles take up too much space in the large bags they pull around, so generally go uncollected. The one change we noticed is that the trash put out for pickup is now placed in plastic dumpsters--several per block--which the cartoneros then pick through. They used to tear open plastic bags of trash left on the curb, which made a mess.

Each cartonero may have a different kind of rig to haul recyclables around, but the collective operation is much more organized than it appears.

Princeton's version of this takes the form of guys in old pickup trucks occasionally cruising residential streets in search of scrap. I can put metal objects out on the curb of busy Harrison Street and have them gone within an hour. We also have "gentleman scavengers"--residents who certainly could afford to buy what they need, but snatch up useful items left out for the trash, whether for the sport of it or an aversion to seeing good merchandise hauled off to the landfill.

Milk is irradiated, which means that it need not be refrigerated until opened. On this FDA webpage, I didn't find milk listed as approved for irradiation in the U.S.

Argentine homes are often heated not by forced air but by gas heaters in each room. The advantage is that only rooms being used need be heated, and one can get closer or farther from the heat according to one's preference.

One big change in Buenos Aires is the bike share program. Two-way bike lanes have been installed on one side of many streets, making it much easier for bicyclists to get around in this mostly flat city. In a moment of irony one evening, I was in the midst of a celebratory thought about the increase in bike use when I was struck by a bicyclist. We were a bit traumatized but unhurt. I think she was running a red light, but I could have been more observant. Bikes add one more thing to watch out for on the busy city streets.

Here's a bread-delivery vehicle.

I'm always checking out how small a tree other cities plant. With disease taking a toll on Princeton's street trees, and the devastating Emerald ash borer likely to soon begin claiming Princeton's most common tree, the ash, we may need to stretch dollars by planting smaller replacement trees than in the past.

Along Buenos Aires' central avenue, Nueve de Julio, with its obelisk and one side of a building devoted to the image of Eva Peron, grass is losing out to perennials (always a good sign). The central median, formerly verdant with trees like the Palo borracho (borracho means drunken, in reference to the trunk's bottle shape) have been cleared to make way for dedicated lanes for buses.

A similar post on sustainability in Mexico City can be found here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Solving Princeton's Yardwaste Dilemma

There's a detailed proposal below, but first a photo tour of the problem.

Do you see the well-kept yard in this photo? Neither do I. Whether used or maintained simply for show, yards generate yardwaste. Lacking a widespread tradition of composting, that means piles of yardwaste large and small get dumped at the curb. A visual tension is created between the finely manicured lawn and the perpetual mess in the street, as homeowners dump all manner and dimension of brush, leaves, soil and grass clippings, with little regard for town ordinances or pickup schedule. The town yardwaste ordinance is remarkably specific about the length and thickness of brush that can be put out--specifications that are very rarely followed.

Princetonians pay high taxes, and though most of it goes to the schools and the county, yardwaste collection is a highly visible service rendered. At the same time, corralling loose yardwaste is inefficient, requiring a caravan of two, sometimes three heavy vehicles. Many less visible public works tasks go undone because of the endless scramble to clean streets. Piles remain on streets for weeks, usurping parking spaces, forcing bicyclists out into traffic, attracting the markings of dogs,

and shedding their nutrients into local streams when it rains. Even after crews collect the mix of brush and yardwaste, a film of dirt remains on the street. The street cleaner comes along now and then, but that, too, often seems only to spread the dirt around rather than pick it up.

Though homeowners can claim that their own yards are neat and clean, the shared space of the streets--what is most visible in the neighborhood--remains in a perpetually messy condition, despite considerable deployment of staff and machinery.

Below is a proposal to avoid these downsides by introducing containerized collection to deal with most of the yardwaste. That means a rollout bin of some size (they vary from 35 to 95 gallon capacity).

Many municipalities (these photos are from Durham, NC) use these rollout bins, three per household, one each for trash, recycling and yardwaste. They linger at the curb for one day per week, then are stowed, leaving a clean streetscape. With more sophisticated composting operations (San Francisco and Seattle are examples), foodwaste can be included in the yardwaste bin for composting, reducing by 30-40% the trash headed to the landfill. Once foodwaste is out of the trash, garbage collection can in some cases be reduced to every other week, such as in Portland, Ore., thereby reducing not only landfill costs but collection costs as well.

Homeowners can have more than one yardwaste bin, or can opt out altogether if they pile their yardwaste in a back corner of the property, where it odorlessly returns to the soil.

Containerizing yardwaste means it can be efficiently collected with one vehicle rather than a caravan of two or three. A small mechanical arm on the truck empties the bin, saving the crew member's back. The efficiency of the operation means that yardwaste will be collected on the day it's put out, not sometime over the next week or two or three.

Though fall leaves can be dealt with by raking a portion into a pile in the back corner, and using a composting lawn mower on those that fall on the lawn, many Princetonians will want the traditional fall pickup of loose leaves to augment a containerized year-round service. Special pickups can deal with instances where homeowners generate large amounts of brush other times of the year.

Containerization, then, would provide the consistent core of a multi-faceted service, aimed at allowing Princetonians to have both a clean yard and clean streets.

Below is a proposal I wrote prior to consolidation, so it may still contain some remnant borough/township language, despite an effort to update. The gist should be there, however.



  • Woody and non-woody yardwaste are supposed to be delivered separately to composting center, but are frequently mixed, suggesting that small diameter woody and non-woody can be mixed.
  • Township and borough yardwaste pickup schedules were distinctly different, making it difficult to integrate the two.

  • From March through September, borough streets are littered with small piles of yardwaste--mostly non-woody, but sometimes woody
  • These small piles are unsightly, and sometimes include soil, rotted leaves, or grass clippings, all of which can contribute nutrient pollution to local waterways
  • Dogs mark these piles, adding somewhat to nutrient runoff when it rains
  • These lightweight materials are collected by heavy machinery, involving "the claw", a dump truck and sometimes a third vehicle on busy streets. Heavy machinery increases wear and tear on pavement. Multiple vehicles increase fuel and employee costs.
  • Pickup requires followup by street cleaning machinery, adding to fuel, maintenance, disposal and manhour costs.
  • Followup by street cleaner frequently ineffective, leaving organic residue in its wake.
  • Large backlog of other public works needs, such as tree removal, suggest heavy year-round man-hour demand of yardwaste pickup is leaving many other tasks undone.


  • Former Borough Policy: Every other week, two passes down each street, with one pass for non-woody yardwaste and one for woody (brush, i.e. woody, and leaves/garden trimmings, i.e. non-woody, are not supposed to be mixed, therefore there must be two passes down each street). Grass clippings are forbidden.

  • Former Borough Reality (as best I can tell): Every other week, one pass down each street, collecting non-woody, woody, and grass clippings all together. Occasional followup by street cleaner.

  • Former Township Policy: Brush (woody material) pickup is done in four months per year--once a month in April and May, August and September. Leaf pickup (non-woody materials) in October, November and December. The bagged leaves are picked up weekly, unbagged leaves picked up monthly. No pickups of woody or non-woody vegetation in January, February and March. 

  • Former Township Reality: According to this policy, there is no pickup of non-woody materials in 9 out of 12 months, and no pickup of woody yardwaste in 8 out of 12 months. Reality may be different.

  • Foodwaste/yardwaste Carts Policy and Reality: For those enrolled, weekly pickup of foodwaste, soiled paper, and what little yardwaste will fit in the green carts. 

PROPOSED SOLUTION: (assumes chipper technology allows some mixing of woody and non-woody at compost center)
  • NON-WOODY and small woody: Provide weekly or bi-weekly pickup of yardwaste in large rollout carts. This means one truck, with a small lift on the back or side, one driver plus one crew in back. Residents could use paper yardwaste bags in addition to cart.
  • OCT-DEC: Augment rollout cart/bag pickup with traditional claw pickup.
  • WOODY: With non-woody yardwaste kept off the street, town can decide how best to deal with woody yardwaste that homeowners can't cut and place in bins, e.g. adjust the frequency or do special pickups. Determine if residents would be permitted to cut woody material to a size they can put in the rollout bins. 
  • Greatly streamline current pickup of non-woody yardwaste, using one vehicle in place of two or three.
  • Because non-woody material is kept off the street, Princeton will have cleaner streets, fewer passes with street-cleaner needed, less wear and tear on equipment and pavement, less interference of yardwaste with parking space in borough, less pollution of streams, better compliance with state stormwater regs.
  • Less frequent pickup of brush in borough needed, with less mixing of woody and non-woody yardwaste.
  • Large rollout bins make it easier for homeowners to move and store yardwaste on their properties.
  • Township residents utilizing current bagged leaf collection in fall will need fewer bags, since rollout cart will hold several bags worth.
  • Less back strain for workers currently picking up yardwaste bags.
  • Dryer non-woody yardwaste, due to lids on rollout carts, which means less weight in trucks
  • Those living on busy streets where they can't put yardwaste on the pavement will no longer kill grass under piles of yardwaste left near the curb.
  • Quicker, safer collection of non-woody yardwaste on busy streets.
  • Grass clippings could be added to carts, if homeowner desires.
  • More attractive streetscapes.
  • If the goal is eventually to keep all foodwaste out of the trash, then the large rollout bins could be used in the future to put out combined non-woody yardwaste and foodwaste for pickup.
  • Some residents with small properties may complain about having to accommodate a rollout bin, but it should be possible for homeowners to find an out of the way spot to put it. Different sized rollout bins could be offered, or neighbors could share one or more bins.
  • Cost per bin will be about $60 (Waste Management contract for Lawrenceville gave bin cost as $30, regardless of size). This cost can be mitigated by increased efficiency of pickup. Residents can opt out of the program if they compost their yardwaste in their backyards.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

House Made of Bottles

One way to bottle up some of those plastic bottles that scatter across the landscape, or float out to sea to form widening gyres of trash, is to build a bottle house. You can tell from the palm trees in the distance, and the papayas poking their way into the photo on the left, that La Casa Ecologica de Botellas is not in Princeton, New Jersey, but instead somewhere seriously south. An Argentine in-law told me of a documentary on bottle-built houses she had seen, and a little internet research showed one to be in Puerto Iguazu in the north of Argentina, where we were headed for a visit to Iguazu Falls.

What is now a worthwhile stop for tourists, and a bit of a cottage industry on the outskirts of town, began with the economic crash of 2001, when Alfredo Santa Cruz was forced to search through rubbish for items he could sell. The first structure was a playhouse for his kids.

As our tour guide demonstrated, begin by screwing one bottle to the bottom half of another, using a long, improvised screwdriver, to form the basic building block.

Slip the top of one building block into the bottom half of another, and one column of a wall starts taking shape.

Better Spanish chops would have deciphered the guide's explanation of the tubing run through the gaps in the plastic wall. Electrical, maybe?

The columns of plastic are tethered in place using plastic strips cut from plastic bottles,

using a clever homemade contraption. The bottle fits into a slit in the wood, in which a blade is mounted to slice long strips in a spiraling fashion off the bottom edge of the bottle.

To fill in the holes in the walls, a layer of what looks like milk cartons is covered with wire mesh to which plaster is applied.

The outside still looks like this,

but the inside looks like the inside of a regular house.

Glass bottles get into the act for the foundation.

Plastic bottles filled with sand are used for the front steps. Many bottle houses use these for the walls as well, but pouring sand in each bottle is a tedious process.

No bottle house is complete without a bottle bed, bottle chairs,

and a bottle pull toy.

Those plastic strips look here to have been twisted to make hairs for a broom.

And then there's the bottle trash can

and the well-attended bottle-like hummingbird feeder.

Plastic bottle lamp shades look to be the next invention to come out of the family's workshop.

On the way out, there were glasses made of repurposed glass bottles,

tin can teapots,

and a sign speaking to people's lack of thought about what happens to what we throw away.

More info at their website. A short BBC video here.

Title of the post comes from House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday, in which he writes of his friends growing up who lived all too disposable lives. "There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was old and everlasting."

Monday, August 05, 2013

Shadow Yoga

Living among trees, shadows have little chance to stretch out. Cities, too, really cramp a shadow's style. They spend their days in quiet longing for the wide open spaces, where only their owners stand between them and the setting sun.

There must be a few spots in Princeton where a shadow can get a good stretch, but if you happen to be traveling to a grassland like the pampas of Argentina, I highly recommend taking your shadow along. Though some airlines now charge for luggage, shadows still fly for free. Hold the stretch at least long enough to take a photo.