Friday, December 12, 2014

Princeton Profile Debuts This Saturday

This Saturday, Dec. 13, Princeton Future will offer preliminary results of its effort to compile a community database called Princeton Profile 2014, at the Princeton Public Library, starting at 9:30am. Having gotten a good numerical feel for Princeton in the morning, you can then take your numerical and spiritual value any number of directions, such as the 2pm march in New York. Wherever we go, we each have the considerable numerical power of one, with spirit either augmenting or subtracting from that. The database's alliterative title, in the tradition of Planet Princeton, Princeton Packet, our own Princeton Primer, and the more-alliterative-than-thou Princeton Printers, should help Princeton Profile survive to become an annual event.

I was involved in an early effort to quantify various aspects of Princeton's environment, including the built environment, when the Princeton Environmental Commission worked with a consultant to update the Princeton Environmental Resource Inventory (ERI) in 2010. It has all sorts of maps and tables and descriptions that offer a portrait of Princeton. But that's essentially a static document. An annual Princeton Profile could take the ERI as a starting point and build on it, build awareness and maintain relevance.

An example of the need for good data:
I emailed Princeton Future to ask them to include numbers on Princeton's Sisyphean struggle to prevent streets from disappearing under the masses of leaves, yardwaste and brush continually heaped upon them. Numbers, such as annual expense, will inform and motivate a change in policy, and there's no other change in policy that offers the same potential for both saving money and improving service and town appearance. One estimate I got from a now-departed public works employee was that collection and composting costs $800,000/yr, half of which he said could be saved with a more efficient policy. My guess is that the cost is $1-2 million when all the direct and indirect costs are factored in.

Let's say we adopt a new approach to collection, with rollout bins as the core, year-round service. Weekly pickups would be augmented by two months of fall looseleaf pickup and two or three special pickups of brush that each resident could call in to request. And let's say that Princeton has about 7000 houses and duplexes (page 113 of the ERI). That means the use of rollout bins for yardwaste, with weekly pickups like we do for trash, could provide the same service as 16-24,000 yardwaste bags per year. Those numbers might help people see that the one-time purchase of durable containers made of recycled plastic would not only reduce the need for the gas-guzzling, crew-intensive Claw caravans but also greatly reduce consumption of paper.

How to pay for new rollout bins for homeowners? Well, Princeton provides free rollout bins for participants in the foodwaste collections. I've heard quotes of $50-60 for the larger sized bin needed for yardwaste. With some 7000 homes, that comes out to about $400,000--a one-time expense that could be borne by the town or shared with the participating homeowners. We'd likely save that much money in the first year. Adding a small hydraulic hook on the backs of existing trucks would cost another $5000/truck. When combined with education encouraging homeowners with wooded lots to put their leaves in the woods rather than on the streets, the new program will also reduce costs at the composting facilities.

Decisions are only as good as the numbers they're based on, and all too often people use inaccurate numbers to discredit good ideas. We'll see if Princeton Future's effort, refined over time, can help inform local decision-making.

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