Saturday, February 08, 2014

Something's (Not) Rotting in Princeton

The whole idea of recycling is to reduce the amount of trash being trucked to the landfill. What matters environmentally is not how much material gets recycled, but how little material gets thrown away. We used to try to measure environmental progress by the tonnage of material recycled. In fact, the main duty of municipal recycling coordinators in New Jersey is to compile how many tons of paper, plastic, glass, etc. got recycled in each town. But the numbers have been losing their meaning. Heavy glass is being replaced by light plastic bottles. Fewer people get newspapers. So tonnages can go down even if people are being more conscientious about recycling.

This is why Sustainable Princeton's goal for solid waste doesn't mention recyclables, but instead puts the focus on trash reduction: 50% by 2016. (Hey, that's coming up!)

Recycling will help reach that goal, but you can see in the two photos that, even when recycling is done well, the trash cans are still overflowing. The basic rule of recycling is being followed here. The recycling containers are visually distinct, and paired with the trash containers. So, why is the majority of material still ending up in the trash?

What's missing is an additional container that would hold compostables. Many cafes have shifted away from styrofoam, fortunately, but there's no protocol in place to keep all the resulting paper containers from filling the trash can. Food waste and all of these food-soiled paper containers should be getting composted. The result, as any Princeton resident who either composts in the backyard or has signed up for the curbside service has discovered, is a dramatic reduction in trash volume and weight.

There are a number of obstacles in the way of doing what obviously needs to be done. One for merchants is space constraints, both in the store and in the back alley. You'd think that keeping compostables out of the trash would greatly reduce the footprint of trash cans and dumpsters, but it would require considerable motivation and commitment to change the status quo. The other is that, though a more local composting facility is in the works, the closest current destination for foodwaste is 70 miles south in Wilmington, Delaware.

In the well-meaning time, while all of this is getting worked out by the often seemingly powerless powers that be, there are individual solutions. A year or two ago, after consuming a large dose of environmental documentaries at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, I decided to incorporate some aspects of camping into my town lifestyle. Camping is pleasurable. We don't get around to it very often, so why not make it part of everyday life? One way is to emulate the "leave no trace" approach to camping. Pack it in, pack it out. And so the paper products I use at the cafe get scrunched up in a pocket or a backpack, to be carried home and either used to start a fire in the woodstove or composted with the food scraps in the backyard. This approach to camping avoids the long drive to some distant campground, and the local "campsite" serves a great cappuccino.

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