Saturday, December 20, 2014

Proposal to Simplify, Streamline Collection of Leaves/Brush in Princeton


I submitted this proposal to Princeton council Dec. 15, 2014, with input and support from other town residents who have repeatedly expressed concerns about the existing policies over the years. Thanks to Daniel Harris, Grace Sinden, Bainy Suri, and Pam Machold for their help. The Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC) has also been working very hard on this issue, and submitted a memorandum to town council October 3rd. Our proposal and the PEC's memorandum can be seen as complementary, with the memorandum giving an excellent summary of all the drawbacks of the current system, and our proposal offering a detailed alternative.

Princetonians and town staff have strong opinions about yardwaste collection. It is human to immediately seek out flaw in any proposed change to the way we do things. Hopefully, this proposal will be received in the positive, exploratory spirit of "This approach has worked elsewhere. How might we make it work in Princeton?".

For readers in a hurry, here is a summary of the proposal: 2-3 months of loose leaf collection in the fall, year-round weekly pickup of containerized yardwaste utilizing 64 or 96 gallon roll carts and yardwaste bags, and 2-3 free special pickups of bulky brush per resident each year. The investment in the new program should get paid back through savings in a year or two, and save hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly from thereon.

Any proposal must satisfy the practical needs of residents and the political needs of town council. The goals of the proposal are dramatically reduced cost, improved street safety, adequate service to residents, more utilization of leaves/yardwaste onsite in people's yards, dramatically improved streetscape appearance, reduced water pollution, and improved compliance with state regulations. More efficient collection will allow a shift to other priorities for some employees now constantly chasing after yardwaste.

A careful reading of the PEC memorandum will show that it does an excellent job of describing the problem, and encouraging people to use leaves on site, but doesn't address brush as a distinct issue from leaves/yardwaste, and doesn't give a clear sense of how we will shift away from loose leaf pickups. It also doesn't provide council with a way of covering its apparent promise not to reduce overall service.


  • Reduced staff needs for yardwaste collection means freed up staff can perform other functions currently neglected or contracted out. These include better business district maintenance, storm sewer cleaning, better park maintenance, and 60% reduction in road repair costs when done in-house.
  • Reduced wear and tear on equipment, reduced fuel costs.
  • Reduced street-sweeping costs due to less dirt and debris in streets for monthly street-sweeps to deal with.
  • Reduced tipping fees and composting costs as new approach helps residents discover how easy and beneficial it is to compost leaves/yardwaste onsite.
  • Potential for eventually adding foodwaste to the containerized yardwaste collection. (see below)

Containerized yardwaste collection can bring big savings and stability to Princeton's foodwaste collection. Other municipalities (e.g. Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland) allow residents to add foodwaste to the large yardwaste rollcart, and co-compost the foodwaste/yardwaste. It's conceivable that, with permitting, the Ecological Center could be used for this sort of composting, greatly reducing fuel and collection costs compared to the current foodwaste collection program. Only through the use of roll carts for yardwaste will this future savings be made possible.


This proposal seeks to anticipate all concerns, mixing idealism with pragmatism. It is based on long observation and research of how other municipalities handle the issue. Phone calls to nearby public works departments make clear that Princeton is not alone in its search for a solution. West Windsor, Hopewell, Lawrenceville—all are struggling, just as we are, with dumpings of yardwaste, leaves and brush on the streets that are year-round and fail to adhere to ordinances.

This is the only proposal I've seen that takes into account not only leaves/yardwaste but also brush. Also key, while reducing overall cost and limiting some services, this proposal adds a service so that council can claim it is keeping its promise not to reduce overall service. A former high level public works employee estimated the annual current cost of collection to be $800,000, half of which he believed could be saved by changes to the program. Costs likely exceed $1 million when composting costs and all direct and indirect costs are factored in. We are still waiting on better numbers. The inefficiency of the current system is such that an alternative approach would likely save $400,000.

The proposed service is so simple it can be described in one sentence: 2-3 months of loose leaf collection in the fall, year-round weekly pickup of containerized yardwaste utilizing 64 or 96 gallon roll carts and yardwaste bags, and 2-3 free special brush pickups per resident each year. The investment in the new program should get paid back through savings in a year or two.

Services to be provided:
· Loose leaf collection during 2-3 months in the fall. Residents can still put loose leaves on the street during that period, but fines will be issued if the leaves are too close to stormdrains or block traffic. The other 9-10 months of the year, loose dumping of leaves/yardwaste is not allowed. For homeowners with large wooded lots, there is no reason to be piling fall leaves next to the street. Some means of strongly encouraging onsite composting should be considered.

· Each resident can call in 2-3 times/year for free special pickups of brush. Additional curbside pickups of brush will require payment of a fee. Small amounts of brush can be placed in the roll carts or bundled next to the curb for weekly pickup with yardwaste.

· Town-wide pickups of loose leaves and brush after big storms, if needed.

· Containerized leaves/yardwaste will be collected 10-12 months/year, once per week on a given day for each neighborhood. (could possibly exclude Jan/Feb) Currently, bagged leaves are picked up 26 times per year. This proposal would nearly double that service, and make it consistently on a particular day. As with trash and recycling, containerized yardwaste/leaves would only be put on the curb the night before the collection. Though yardwaste bags can be used, a roll cart will be the primary container, as has been used in many cities. Unlike yardwaste bags, the roll cart--like our 32 gallon green foodwaste carts but larger--is easily rolled around the yard, holds 2-3 bags worth of material, is easier to fill, and keeps contents dry. It can also be emptied into the truck using a hydraulic “tipper” hook that can be retrofitted onto existing trucks for $5000/hook. The cost of roll carts for 7000 dwellings is about $400,000, to be paid either by the town or shared with participating residents. This one-time town cost would be paid back through savings within a year or two. Residents desiring additional carts could purchase them at cost.

· Enforcement of the policy, combined with education as described by the PEC memorandum, will encourage people to "leave the leaves", to utilize them on the property through mulch-mowing, leaf corrals, and raking/blowing leaves into wooded areas on larger lots. Since fencing for leaf corrals is generally sold in long lengths, the town could provide the fencing and stakes to interested homeowners, who would then be expected to email back a "selfie" of them with their installed leaf corral.


In addition to allowing council to claim it is maintaining service, a successful program must take advantage of the following:

  1. Residents/landscapers want simplicity and consistency: Princeton's current approach has complex schedules. Homeowners and landscapers frequently ignore these schedules and instead impose their own, simple policy, which is to dump leaves/brush year-round at any time. A simplified, consistent collection approach would imitate the successful approach we use for garbage and recycling.
  2. Residents imitate their neighbors: If one neighbor puts leaves out on the wrong week, others will do the same. Since backyard composting is invisible from the street, this beneficial practice cannot be spread by imitation. The town's green rollout bins (e.g. roll carts) for foodwaste are highly visible--a quality that the town has taken advantage of to encourage more people to sign up. A larger rollout bin for yardwaste would have the same advantage.
  3. Working with nature makes life easier: The roll carts, along with education and promotions like free leaf corrals, will motivate residents to discover the advantages of mulching mowers and/or piling leaves in corrals or wooded portion of their property. The PEC memorandum, which references a very helpful website, Love 'em and Leave 'em, does a good job of encouraging and informing this approach.
  4. Making the case for cost savings: Neither the loose leaf pickup nor the bagged leaf approach is efficient. The former requires a large caravan of machines; the latter means awkward stuffing for the homeowner, and cruising of town by crews to pick up widely scattered bags along the curb. Once data is available, we can give the public a sense of potential savings.
  5. The combination of education, enforcement, and the habits formed by utilizing weekly containerized pickup, will cause residents and landscapers to shift towards utilizing leaves/yardwaste onsite in the yard, and thereby further reduce the cost of composting and collection. 

This proposal recommends practices that have been successful in many other municipalities around the country. It provides answers for all the various forms of organics--leaves, yardwaste, brush, and even potentially foodwaste. While gaining the many fiscal, ecological, safety, and aesthetic advantages of containerized collection, the proposal adds a new weekly collection service that will be cleaner, safer, more consistent and more fair.

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