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.


Joe Budelis said...

Hey Steve - This is a great well thought out, worthwhile proposal. Hopefully, Princeton officials will act on it.

Your comment about lids reminds me that it would probably be a good idea for Princeton to provide lids for recycling containers. Last time I heard, the Township had a disincentive, charging residents who wanted lids for their recycling containers. Lids would eliminate the extra weight caused by water, snow and ice in the containers. In some cases, the lower weight would be a health benefit to residents and Public Works employees as far as their backs go. Lids would also make it less likely that material will be blown away in the wind or stick to the container only to be dumped on the roadway when workers empty the container.

Steve Hiltner said...

Yes, lids are a wonderful invention, particularly those that are attached to the container, so they don't get lost.