Thursday, June 13, 2019

Experiment at Nassau Street Intersection: a Pedestrian Only Signal Phase

Nassau and Vandeventer at 4:15 on a Wednesday afternoon, three days in to the experimental "pedestrian only signal phase," which clears the intersection of all cars while pedestrians cross. This is the latest attempt to make this intersection safe for cars and pedestrians, and each time the waits get longer.

The upside? Having all pedestrians cross at the same time, while all cars wait, creates a clarity for pedestrians that was missing in the past. I saw one pedestrian sneak across out of phase, but my guess is that the pedestrian-only phase will get more respect from pedestrians than its confusing predecessor.

The downside? Well, five years ago, it was the drivers coming up heavily shaded, low-slung Vandeventer who had to wait while drivers coming down sunny Washington Rd exercised the "arrogance of the high ground," continuing to turn left onto Nassau even when their green arrow had disappeared.

Now. drivers on Vandeventer again seem to have the longest wait, with only 12 seconds to get through the intersection. I counted 20 cars waiting, backed up almost two blocks, and only ten managed to get through the intersection each time. The long wait can cause some drivers to get distracted and not notice when they finally have the right of way, causing even more inefficiency.

Still, the pedestrians-only phase is wonderful to experience if you're a pedestrian. Thirty seconds of relief from a car-soaked culture is to be savored.

Can it work? Maybe with some tweaking. The solution proposed on this blog five years ago was a flashing yellow arrow to make more clear to drivers that they must yield to oncoming traffic and pedestrians before making a left turn. The flashing yellow is used in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and probably many other states as well, but apparently not in NJ. That simple change five years ago might have avoided the multiple, traumatic, expensive alterations since then. Currently, there is some two-way traffic during the 45 seconds of green devoted to Nassau Street. Compare that to Washington Rd (15 seconds of one-way traffic) and Vandeventer (a mere 10 seconds of one-way traffic). A flashing yellow arrow could potentially allow some 2-way traffic during the Washington Rd/Vandeventer phase as well, adding efficiency and reducing the wait time for car drivers while keeping the pedestrian-only phase. The current pedestrian phase is 30 seconds long, which seems ample.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Why Voluntary Change in Lawn Care Seldom Happens

There was a time when I believed that education could change the behavior of homeowners and landscape companies. I even wrote the Guide to Fall Leaf Management, years back while a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission. The brochure sings the praises of mulch mowing, leaf corrals, and incorporating leaves into the landscape. I'd like to think it helped some people view leaves as an opportunity rather than as a nuisance.

But since that time I've had enough experiences with homeowners and landscapers to convince me that very few are listening and even fewer are interested in changing their ways voluntarily. A yard is an extension of a homeowner's personality, so that asking them to change their approach to yardcare is akin to asking them to change their view of themselves, their culture, and of nature, and that stuff is pretty hardwired. People take their cues from their past, their neighbors, and what the town will let them get away with. That's a lot for a brochure to compete with.

This photo speaks volumes about the dominant culture and the future of the world. First, there is a reduction of land to mere ornament--nature reduced to the role of a visual support for the house, seldom stepped on other than to mow. One of the sketches in my climate change theater is called Turf Therapy, featuring a suburban lawn who tells a therapist that she feels like a trophy wife, trapped in a co-dependent relationship with the narcissistic House. On a larger scale, nature plays the sacrificial, supporting role to meet the needs of the self-centered, extractive economy.

In this lawn and in nearly every other yard and grounds you could think of, there's also the need to simplify nature, to reduce its baffling complexity down to something less intimidating and more easily managed. We can't all have a deep knowledge of plants and plantcare, and even the professional landscape companies are little more than custodial operations. Though less extreme than in the photo, our yards reflect that.

In addition, it may seem counterproductive, self-defeating, to pile yardwaste in front of a tidied up front yard, but this juxtaposition is apparently jarring only for those of us who value public space. For those whose interest stops at the property line, this pile of grass clippings is as invisible as the fossil carbon emanating from our machines' exhaust pipes and chimneys.

Passing by, I complimented the owner on his lovely tulips and weeping cherries, and then politely explained to him and his landscaper that the town doesn't collect grass clippings. Later, I double checked and found that the town website says:
"The leaf and brush pickup does not include grass clippings. It is recommended they be mulched back into your yard. Do not leave them out for pickup."

The owner smiled and said he'd remove them, which all seemed very logical and thoughtful until a week later, when another pile appeared. Perhaps a miscommunication with his landscaper?

A week later, the pile grew larger.

Now, imagine the environmentalist's predicament. Believing in the benefits of sustainable landscaping, the environmentalist carefully crafts a brochure to convince homeowners to change their wasteful ways. If only people would read the brochure, surely they'd be swayed to change their ways. But the simple, heedless act of piling grassclippings at the curb sends a more powerful message than any brochure ever could. Each passerby who sees the grassclippings is thinking, "Oh, maybe that's what I should do."

Meanwhile, the rains come and cars run over the pile, spreading its rapidly decaying, high nitrogen contents and washing nutrient pollution into the local waterway. The nutrients feed algal growth in the water, the subsequent decay of which depletes the oxygen available for fish to breathe. Such are the complex ways of nature, all taking place far from view until the fish go belly up in Carnegie Lake, not from this one pile of grassclippings but from the collective impacts of biological and chemical insult that we unthinkingly impose on the world around us.

And imagine the town's predicament. If they scoop up the clippings on one of their collection days, they encourage the homeowner to continue violating the ordinance. But if the town stays true to its ordinance, the clippings then sit there for weeks, looking ugly and raising a stink if disturbed, given the anaerobic decomposition going on inside the dense pile.

A comic aside: I was walking my dog by the man's house sometime later, when the dog, being a dog, decided to pee on the grass extension between the sidewalk and the curb. The man, who was cutting down his spent tulips, waved us away, as if I were supposed to give my dog the bum rush, lest the pee impact the pristinity of the lawn. It's as if the lawn becomes more carpet than something alive, cut off from nature's cycling of nutrients. The disconnect between private and public, yard and the natural world beyond, is deeply entrenched, and I don't see how any educational intervention, no matter how thoughtful, will ever change that on its own.

It's not right for environmentalists to be burdened with the task of changing behavior. In essence, we are being punished with extra work while the malefactors blithely keep doing what they've always done. When, through policy change and enforcement, and through better options like containerization of yardwaste in compost carts, people are both required and encouraged to change their ways, that's when an informative brochure will help people adopt, and feel good about, a more ecological approach.

Update: After several weeks, the pile of grass clippings finally disappeared. Apparently the homeowner, who also runs a landscape company, gave up hope that the town would take them away. I doubt that he'll pile any more grassclippings at the curb. He changed his ways not because of education, but because the town made a rule and stuck with it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Greenfest Transforms Princeton Shopping Center and Embraces the Future

Sunny weather returned to Princeton just long enough to grace Sustainable Princeton's Greenfest this past Saturday, May 11. This was a full scale festival that transformed the Shopping Center's partially sheltered courtyard with so much to learn and enjoy. It was a revelation to see the courtyard's potential as a gathering and learning space being fully utilized, seemingly for the first time.

Though the focus of the festival was on solutions--bicycles, electric vehicles, stewardship--councilman David Cohen challenged passersby to find which disastrous events on his poster were not caused by climate change. Only a couple, as it turned out.

Sustainable Princeton's Jenny Ludmer, one of the chief organizers of the event, showed kids the power of the pedal by having them pedal a bike hooked up to a blender that ground up ice.

My favorite table was organized by girlscout Cadette Troop 72905, which has been so active in helping take care of Herrontown Woods and educating people about its natural and cultural history.

The bike theme began with parking your bike at some new racks purchased to provide Bike Valet service at local events. I had the pleasure of meeting a mother of middle schoolers named Lisa, the master mind behind the middle school recently installing additional bike racks. I had posted in the past about the shortage of bikeracks at the schools and on Nassau Street, but Lisa was able to work effectively through PTO, and even tracked down a good deal on the racks, to ultimately make it happen.

Fest-goers could testdrive electric vehicles of various sorts. A Boston-based electric bike company looking to expand into New Jersey had some very nice electric bikes in the $1-2,000 range. First time I tried one, a few years ago, it felt like cheating to have all that power boost under your feet. The owner said he doesn't hear that said much anymore. Electric is a way to get people back on their bikes. Batteries and electric power are the only way to shrink our sprawled communities back down to a size where we can get around without feeling dependent on carbon fuels. If suburban sprawl has made us feel physically helpless, then turn us into avatars with battery technology.

One of the raffle prizes was an electric scooter--another awesome enabler of transport.

Trash cans were muzzled for the event, with all disposables to be taken to a special tent for separation into recyclables and landfillables.

The courtyard's "green"was dotted with people listening to some fine vocal and instrumental groups. I did a ten minute stint on the stage as Climate Cabaret, taking on the character of CO2, and contrasting sport's celebration of can-do collective action with climate-denial's deep pessimism about taking collective action to slow climate change. I also sought to make up for a global scarcity of environmental jokes. For example:

Question: How many environmentalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer: Two--one to screw it in, and another to keep turning it off.

Brizo the mermaid was holding court in her own tent, talking to kids about that magical substance we call water.

Sustaining health was another theme at a couple tables, with Isles of Trenton on hand, and a nurse to take the blood pressure of passersby and discuss such topics as Lyme.

This solar suitcase comes with an unfoldable solar array to sustain a house through a power outage, but I ran out of time to find out more. Learning about that will require another Greenfest.

Each day, politically and economically tethered to our roles as dystopia's lackeys, we spew more fossil carbon into the air, unintentionally but knowingly and legally sacrificing the future for the present. A livable  future has been kept bound and gagged by a political opposition warped by pessimism and cowardice.

At Greenfest, all the solutions were on display. It was a chance to once again believe in the future. That old saying, "the sky's the limit," has in recent decades taken on two opposite meanings--one of promise, another of portent. Sustainable Princeton's fabulous festival transformed Princeton Shopping Center for an afternoon. Now, it's a matter of permanently transforming Princeton, of realizing promise, for the sake of the future.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Sustainable Princeton's Greenfest This Saturday, May 11, 11-3

Sustainable Princeton will be hosting a Greenfest at the Princeton Shopping Center this Saturday, May 11 from 11-3. There will be, among other things, electric cars and bikes to test drive, local businesses and nonprofits with their displays, and varied music and entertainment. More info at the link. I'm scheduled to perform some climate cabaret from 12:25 to 12:35.

Sustainable Princeton received a $100,000 grant to put together a Princeton Climate Action Plan, which is now in draft form. Comments are being accepted through May 31.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Compostables and Self-Expression in Princeton's Streets

It's not clear whether the descriptions below reflect merely an aesthetic blight or are also evidence of a deep inefficiency. Princeton has never calculated the full cost of its collection of leaves and brush, but one estimate put the annual cost at close to $1 million. It seems to be hard for municipalities to track the cost of individual services, which in turn makes it hard to determine whether another approach would be less expensive. A comparative figure I was able to obtain, after considerable effort, from a municipality that requires compostable materials be containerized, was $250,000/year. That number, delivered to me by an environmental commission member in Ann Arbor, MI, suggests that a city four times larger than Princeton is able to deliver a comparable service for a quarter the cost. That works out to being 16 times cheaper, and in Ann Arbor residents can toss food scraps in the compost bin with leaves and sticks--essentially two services in one. Whether accurate or not, the number suggests that an open mind towards other approaches would be worth Princeton's while.

This post looks at the status quo, and also points to one of the constraints that is holding Princeton back from considering more cost-effective approaches to collection of compostables.

Princeton's streets are never dull. There are always new designs being etched in the pavement, like this one, left by a giant single-clawed machine that periodically lumbers by. The scars look lasting, but usually disappear in a day or two.

Each etching is different. This one looks like a baleen whale balancing on its nose.

The varied shapes of scars are preceded by an endless variety of piled sticks and leaves, each piling an expression of the homeowner's or landscaper's degree of indifference to town regulations.

Some are a jubilantly defiant mix of multiple violations, with dirt, sticks, leaves, and pizza boxes all in a jumble.

Another homeowner put sticks out in containers, not knowing that the proper way is to make a mess in the street by piling them loose.

On another street, this highly ordered progression of carefully assembled pilettes of sticks went above and beyond the complex requirements detailed on the town website.

Yet another resident carefully separated out leaves and brush, but they weren't picked up, perhaps because they were placed too close to the stormdrain. Many piles put out at the wrong time or in the wrong manner linger on the streets for days, weeks or months.

Just down the street, yet another resident had an extraordinary display of tulips and weeping cherries in a sea of lush green turf. How better to show it off than to illegally pile grass clippings on the street, to rot and fester in the public space?

For those of us who have moved to New Jersey from other parts of the country where yardwaste is either containerized or composted in the backyard, this use of the streets for endlessly varied pilings and scraping seems oddly unattractive and inefficient.

Princeton has an added twist to this deeply embedded tradition. Because the town composts most of its leaves and brush at the Lawrenceville Ecological Center, it has to conform to Lawrenceville's requirements. Turns out that the composting center has a grinder that cannot grind leaves and brush at the same time. So Princeton has to make separate trips up and down the streets with its giant clawing machine to pick up either one or the other.

I had never quite believed that the town actually makes separate pickups for leaves and brush. People are always putting them out together, and they disappear in one fell swoop. But on one special week this year, the schedule for picking up leaves and brush coincided, as if they were planets lining up in the night sky. In our section of town, that special week was the week of April 22. Would the town actually make two separate trips through all the streets to selectively pick up leaves and brush?

The answer proved to be yes. There, can you see it in the distance? A tiny pile of sticks was left behind when a big pile of leaves was taken away.

And here, too, some leaves were left behind while most of the rest of the pile was taken.

For anyone who believes government services should be efficiently delivered, the vision of a very big and heavy, gas-guzzling machine and its entourage of other heavy trucks having to do a double pass through the streets goes against common sense. Other municipalities have grinders that can handle leaves and brush at the same time. Why not Lawrenceville? On the other hand, some residents may find this display of massive machinery reassuring, it being the most visible evidence that the government is providing services, no matter how Sisyphean.

Containerizing leaves and brush in large compost carts, as is done elsewhere in the country, would likely save a lot of money. But such efficiency and conformity seems to run against the grain of Princeton and other New Jersey towns. There's something embedded in the culture, as deeply as the requisite swath of idle green lawn, that drives this perpetual spilling from private onto public space. Though it is visible, and to my eyes unattractive, it seems for many to be as unnoticed as the carbon dioxide we pour into that other public space, the atmosphere.

Gone would be the varied etchings in the pavement. The endlessly varied piles of sticks, leaves, and dirt would disappear behind the conformist green or brown plastic walls of a compost cart. The giant claw's back and forth, fossil-fueled dance as it scrapes, lifts, and loads leaves and brush into a dumptruck would be replaced by the steady, orderly progression of a truck down the street, emptying each container in turn. Our streets would be cleaner, pickups more predictable and frequent, money would be saved, but at what cost in individual expression?

Monday, April 15, 2019

Dinky Buses Running on Different Schedule While Bridge is Closed

It makes sense, but there was no notice of a schedule change online.

And the NJ Transit schedule from Princeton Junction to NY still has a link to a schedule that was outdated six months ago, on October 13.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Quality Control in the Local Park

Our house straddles two worlds. In front, there's the ever increasing stream of autos and trucks on Harrison Street. But behind the house is a yard full of wildflowers and beyond that a small Princeton park. We had chickens for many years, and ducks, and the miniponds have attracted several visits from a great blue heron.

The park, into which we can slip through a small homemade gate, is hidden away, known mostly to neighbors, and tends to receive contributions of toys and basketballs from those who use it. Some of the toys are in better shape than others, and some of the basketballs are more inflated than others. Here, as everywhere else in the world, there is an ongoing influx of stuff with no clear mechanism for quality control, repair or disposal.

A friend whose kids are still young enough to go there recently told me that the level of disrepair and deflation had reached an uncomfortable high. I stopped by, and noticed the most clearly offending item. It was a big wagon that from a distance looked like it would be really cool to pull kids around on, like a hay wagon ride. Closer inspection showed it to have long since transitioned from rustic to just plain rust, with all four tires permanently flat.

For me, with a pastoral backyard and busy front yard, the solution was obvious. The rusty wagon was hauled from the park to our front curb, where it quickly disappeared into one of those scrap trucks that passes by. A little communication, a little action--the system works, sometimes.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Student Climate Summit May 11

Students are encouraged to attend and present at the upcoming Next Gen Student Climate Summit organized by students and faculty at Princeton Day School. There's an April 12 deadline to submit proposals for presentations. Liz Cutler is the contact for more info. See below.

Register now, and submit a proposal to present, lead a discussion and/or set up a table display!

Next Gen Student Climate Summit
May 11, 2019, 10:30am-4:30pm 
The Watershed Institute, Pennington, NJ

A gathering for and by students across the region, the Next Gen Climate Summit relies on you!

Help lead the Summit by sharing information in any of these environmental activism and action areas:

  • sustainability actions in your school 
  • sustainability actions & activism in your community 
  • specific impacts of climate change

Don't miss the APRIL 12 deadline to submit proposals! 

Questions? Contact

The Next Gen climate summit is an annual event hosted by Princeton Day School student climate leaders and partnering schools and organizations.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The Four "C"'s Princeton Needs to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

Here's a useful mnemonic device for summarizing the challenges Princeton faces with recycling and collection of various residential organic materials. The four "C"'s (containers, compliance, consequence, and control) are necessary to achieve the three "R"'s (reuse, reduce, recycle).

Containers: In municipalities outside NJ, and perhaps inside as well, the 32, 64, or 96 gallon carts with wheels and attached covers are the norm. Every homeowner has the same containers, rolls them out to the curb once a week, then stows them away.

Princeton is not like that. Perhaps there's a resistance to conformity. Trash day brings out a hodgepodge of trash containers. The recycling containers are stubbornly undersized, uncovered, and unstable, and yardwaste ends up in endlessly varied piles in the streets and on the curb, for lack of containerization beyond a limited collection of yardwaste bags.

The situation begs for better containerization. More and more Princeton residents purchase trash carts with lids and wheels, proving the utility and popularity of this design. Though a small version of the standard cart design has been used for the curbside organics (foodwaste) collections (green cart in photo), there are larger versions widely used elsewhere for trash, recycling, and a mix of foodwaste and yardwaste. The lidded carts also provide an opportunity to put instructions on the lids, to improve compliance (see below).

Compliance: Lack of compliance is an ongoing problem in recycling (plastic bags, etc.) and both containerized and loose yardwaste collections.

Consequence: Princeton has cut back on the spring/fall yardwaste bag pickups because people were putting dirt in the bags and Lawrenceville didn't like that (see "control", below), but another approach would be to maintain or expand containerized pickups while enforcing the rules. Lack of consequence drives lack of compliance. Though enforcement of rules for throwing loose yardwaste in the streets proved very difficult, it would be relatively easy to enforce regulations for containerized yardwaste if compost carts were provided. The carts can be clearly labeled as to what can be put in them, and since collection is done by town crews (unlike recycling and trash), notes can be left on the carts alerting the owner of any infraction.

Control: Princeton's recycling program is run by Mercer County. That means that the town has no control over the container design and what people put in them. Thus, we're still stuck with undersized green and yellow tubs that overflow and spill in the wind. On the composting front, Lawrenceville owns and controls the composting facility, and because the facility apparently still has a grinder that cannot grind leaves and sticks at the same time, Princeton residents are required to separate brush from leaves. This requirement complicates any move towards the sort of streamlined containerization of yardwaste one sees elsewhere in the country, where leaves, food scraps, and sticks can be tossed in the same compost cart. State regulations will pose an additional hurdle, since the most logical and efficient solution--co-composting of food scraps and yardwaste--requires a special permit in NJ.

These four "C"'s all impact a fifth, namely Cost. For an example, Princeton has had four separate pickups for compostables: leaves, brush, yardwaste bags, and organics (foodwaste). That's a lot of heavy vehicles driving down the street, and a lot of administrative time working out complicated schedules. Though it would be nice to be wrong about this, the cost of all these various pickups has yet to be analyzed, as far as I know. 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

A New Use for Princeton's 1000 Green Compost Carts

With the suspension of Princeton's curbside organics collection, about 1000 households now have green compost carts that have gone idle. Residents have been asked to keep the green carts, but the suspension of service could continue indefinitely.

Is there a good use for the carts in the meantime, particularly given that the meantime could last a long time? One excellent and appropriate use is for yardwaste. For fifteen weeks in spring and summer, Princeton has a truck that picks up bags of yardwaste curbside. The green carts are the same size as a full yardwaste bag, so could easily be integrated into the existing program.

Residents could of course, still use the yardwaste bags, but will find the green cart a very useful addition, since it has wheels for easy transport and a top to keep the contents dry. Containerizing yardwaste helps keep streets clean and unobstructed, and prevents the killing of grass when loose yardwaste is placed on the extension next to the curb. Ultimately, containerization could give Princeton beautiful clean streets for most of the year.

Would some residents be confused and, out of habit, mix food scraps in with the yardwaste? The solution is to clearly mark the green carts so that residents know what's allowed and what's not allowed. If and when Princeton resumes its food scrap collection, the yardwaste-only signs on the green carts could easily be covered over. This points to a major advantage of compost carts for containerizing yardwaste. Unlike single use yardwaste bags, the compost carts can be clearly marked as to what contents are allowed, and the crews get to see what's inside when they empty the carts' contents into the truck. Any violations can be spotted, and a warning placed on the emptied cart to set the resident straight.

The curbside programs for collecting yardwaste and recyclables have both been hampered by contamination. Rules are constantly being broken due to lack of enforcement. The recycling program, however, is run by the county, so Princeton cannot enforce the rules. The food scrap "organics" collections were contracted out, again making enforcement difficult. Though the collection of loose leaves and brush is done by town crews, the nature of that process has made enforcement difficult.

Only the collection of containerized yardwaste provides hope for enforcement that will reduce contamination. Collection is done by town crews, who can be trained to give feedback, and most importantly, notes of violation can easily be attached to the container and left at the curb.

With 1000 green compost carts sitting idle, this would seem an ideal time to deploy the compost carts in a useful way, at no expense and with no reduction in any existing service.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The King's Speech on Climate Change

What happens when The King's Speech is adapted to address climate change? One of my Climate Cabaret's theatrical sketches--a climate-adapted version of The King's Speech, has been made into a film by filmmaker Sam Russell. The five minute film stars Fred Dennehy as England's King George VI. I wrote the screen adaptation from the original 1939 speech, and James Degnen producer. Sam did a beautiful job with this movie, which has been shown on Climate Monitor TV and is being submitted to environmental film festivals.

The film can also be viewed on Sam Russell's website:

The King's Speech on Climate Change from Sam Russell on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Do Princeton's Recyclables Go to the Landfill?

There's an urban legend that recyclables don't really get recycled. I've proven this legend false in the past, and decided to research our local situation once again after reading a letter to the editor about recycling in a local paper.

The letter rightly lamented how residents frequently contaminate their curbside recyclables by using plastic bags to hold the bottles, cans and plastics. The bags are not supposed to be included in the curbside recyclables, and in fact can gum up the machines at the plant where the mixed recyclables are taken for sorting.

You can see in these photos that part of the problem is that Princeton's recycling containers are undersized and overwhelmed. People seem to use plastic bags in part because the recyclables might otherwise spill out of the bins, as happens when wind blows them over.

Something didn't sound quite right, however, about another assertion in the letter: that perfectly good recyclables (plastics 1 and 2, cans, paper, etc) are often rejected due to plastic bag contamination, and therefore get sent to the landfill. Though this assertion is dramatic, and might motivate some people to be more careful about keeping plastic bags out of their recycling bins, it also can feed the cynical urban legend that recyclables don't really get recycled.

The letter writer had been careful to run the letter by members of town government prior to submitting it to the local paper, and had gotten her information from a staff member in the town's Department of Public Works. So the claim came with a seemingly good pedigree.

What's true? On multiple occasions in the past, I've contacted the sorting plant where Princeton's recyclables go, and even toured the facility, and though plastic bags can cause problems with their machinery, they did not say anything about rejecting recyclables due to plastic bag contamination. I tried to imagine the scenario. Our recyclables are taken to a transfer station, then the many individual truckloads are co-mingled and loaded in semis for the trip to the MRF (Material Recovery Facility--here's an example), where they are dumped on the tipping floor. Where in this process do we know of a load of recyclables being rejected and sent instead to the landfill?

I decided to call Colgate Paper Recycling, the past and presumably present destination for Mercer County's recyclables, including Princeton's. They take recyclables from towns and businesses, often arriving in semi-trailers that spill their contents on the tipping floor. From there, the recyclables travel up through a maze of conveyor belts with sensors that help sort out the recyclables. Out the other end of the plant come bails of separated paper, plastics, and metals.

Through some luck, a knowledgable man answered the phone. We talked for awhile, and it came to light that no load of recyclables is ever rejected. If a load is contaminated in some way, the plant may pay the hauler less for that particular load. This can happen a couple times a week. There is no way a municipality can be held accountable by Colgate, because they receive recyclables in large semis from the transfer station, and each load contains recyclables from multiple towns, all mixed together.

The only other place a load of Princeton's recyclables could be rejected is at the transfer station. Imagining the logistics, it's hard to see how this could happen. The load would have to be dumped in order to tell whether it is contaminated, and then the contaminated load would have to be set aside, reloaded in a truck and taken to the landfill--a tremendous inconvenience. And for the contamination to be sufficiently severe, Solterra's own crews would need to have willingly put the contaminated materials in their truck during curbside collection.

Logistically, the claim that good recyclables are going to the landfill due to contamination doesn't make sense. More likely, all recyclables, no matter how contaminated, get hauled to the Colgate plant, which deals with them as best it can.

I then asked about plastics numbered 3-7. The man said that these are no longer recycled. However, that doesn't mean that Colgate sends them to the landfill. There are alternative uses that are being experimented with. This raises the question of whether we should be including plastics 3-7 in our recycling bins. Mercer County says no, and Princetonians are expected to follow that dictate. The presence of 3-7 plastics in the waste-stream means more sorting by Colgate, for little or no profit.

But given that many, perhaps most, residents ignore the rules and put plastics 3-7 in their bins, and Princeton is not in a position to enforce the county's rules, a case can be made that any accumulation of a particular material will stimulate someone to seek a use for it. If 3-7 get sent straight to the landfill, there will be no motivation for people to find uses for those plastics. Colgate doesn't like to deal with plastics 3-7, but given their presence in the recycling stream, the plant does try to find alternatives to sending them to the landfill. To be clear, if anything having to do with recycling is clear, even though Colgate includes plastics 3-7 on their list of acceptable materials, they prefer not to have to deal with them.

All of this complexity drives home some basic truths. A lot of people like plastic bags. People want packaging to be recyclable. They prefer putting items in the recycle bin even when repeatedly told not to. Do we deal with this by sending people long, complicated lists only to see those lists ignored? Or do we demand that government at the state and federal levels regulate packaging to require that it all be easily recycled anywhere the product is sold?

Though it's true that regulation can create unnecessary complexity, it's also true that a lack of regulation of packaging has created huge complexity for ordinary people who must scrutinize each one-use container to decide whether to throw it in with recyclables or in with the trash. The unregulated manufacturers are happy. They can create a package most likely to seduce the shopper, and then the shopper, the environment, and the whole recycling industry has to deal with the "day after," the bafflingly complex task of deciding what to do with all those spent containers.

Some other tidbits: The man at Colgate said that soiled pizza boxes cause problems for cardboard processors. (This, as is typical in the complex world of recycling, contradicts what I heard last year on a PBS NewsHour segment on recycling, where an interviewee said that greasy pizza boxes aren't a problem.) He also said that a big problem comes from businesses--long strips of backing for labels get tangled in the machines.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Princeton Recyclables Litter Local Waterways

For anyone who has lived outside the Princeton bubble, the approach to recycling collection here can seem odd. Other towns and cities I've lived in or visited have long since switched to rollcarts as the container of choice for holding recyclables and, for that matter, trash and yardwaste, but Princeton has long been a part of Mercer County's recycling program, which uses these small yellow and green tubs. Despite their flaws, they sometimes seem like they will outlive civilization.

The flaws become apparent any time recycling day coincides with stormy weather. The small, lidless tubs or "buckets" are often overflowing with recyclables, and unstable. Winds tip them over, scattering their contents and causing the containers themselves to roll out into traffic. Many stormdrains have bigger openings than this one, which means that all over Princeton on recycling day, thousands of plastic containers are dropping into the stormdrain system, from which they will enter local waterways and potentially feed the widening gyres of plastic out in the oceans.

As with the feeding of climate change that we do daily, this massive littering is unintentional, and is therefore tolerated. When, as a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission years back, I suggested switching to rollcarts, which are more stable, have wheels, lids and larger capacity, there was a surprising amount of pushback, suggesting that the town and county are tightly bound to a status quo that gives Princetonians little choice but to continue collectively littering streets and waterways for the foreseeable future.

This blog has many posts about recycling in Princeton, to be found at this link.
Some examples:

Friday, January 11, 2019

Science's Role in Sustaining Democracy

"It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right."

Andrew Zwicker, one of Princeton's two representatives in the state house, spoke this week to a full room at Mercer County Community College. It was part of a monthly series of talks hosted by the NJ Sierra Club. Assemblyman Zwicker is one of our few, perhaps the only, representative in government who is trained as a scientist. I attended not only because Zwicker is a gifted speaker, but also because of the subject.

The title of the talk, "Scientific Literacy and Democracy," struck a chord with me particularly because the plight of nature has increasingly found a parallel in growing threats to democracy. Both are at risk in a time when truth is being attacked, denied, ignored, downgraded, and generally dismissed. There is the national reality of a leader who cannot see beyond his own skin, and a broad-based, corrosive and paralyzing polarization that thrives on a dismissive attitude towards evidence.

Andrew Zwicker is a rare breed, a scientist who is also comfortable in front of an audience, and he has taken that extra step of bringing his scientific abilities into the political realm. An evidence-based perspective could be a unifying influence if it caught on among his colleagues at the statehouse.

Having a couple science degrees, I have found myself increasingly aware that my mind works differently from many who lack science training. Most significantly, that training can help direct skepticism not only outward but inward as well, at one's own views.

Most of the world's polarization and radicalism would disappear if people directed as much skepticism inward as outward. Science, and its pursuit of truth, is like a lifeline being extended to a world fractured by unfounded opinion. The political polarization we suffer through is artificially created by people who refuse to adjust their views in the face of evidence.

My views are built on varying degrees of knowledge, experience, and observation. Some of those views are better supported than others, and all are subject to revision in the face of new evidence. Scientific training is liberating, in that it allows facts to exist independent of what we might wish were true. Unentangled from our emotions and sense of self, facts need not be feared or clung to, but can be built into an evidence-based view of the world.

My older daughter went through a phase in which she'd periodically declare, with a mixture of surprise and pride, "I changed my mind!" There's pleasure in that flexibility, that openness to new evidence, and my sense is that many people have lost that openness. Recently I was on an advisory committee, developing a list of proposals for action on climate change. The subject had everything to do with science, but only a few of us appointed to the committee had scientific training. A couple of us with a scientific background made suggestions, with some supporting evidence, expecting that if others disagreed, they would provide counter evidence. Being open to new evidence, I might have changed my mind if someone had a more convincing argument. Instead, people simply didn't respond, and continued to stick to their own views without feeling compelled to defend them. They'd mention something they'd read in a book that they liked the sound of, and it would turn out that even the book, though about science, was written by someone who lacked training in science.

During Q and A with Assemblyman Zwicker, I mentioned this curious phenomenon, that science-related advisory committees and science writing can be dominated by people lacking science training. A science editor for the NY Times once wrote a deeply flawed oped denying the threat of invasive species. Turned out he was a Princeton grad with a PhD in english. There are no doubt science writers who know much more than I do about many aspects of science, and yet there's something about science training that cultivates a healthy two-way skepticism, inward as well as outward. It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right.

After the Q and A, a woman came up to me and said that data is the issue. Most people don't know what to do with data. Maybe she was referring to an analytical ability that develops over time. Science presents you with data, and you have to figure out what the data is suggesting, if anything, and whether it's strong enough to be conclusive. The process requires a great deal of patience, but it also requires an acceptance that there is a reality outside of oneself that really doesn't care about us and our emotional needs at all.

It's possible to experience that reality out in nature, when one gets far from the ever-expanding footprint of lights and noise, far enough that the only human presence is within one's own skin. For me, it's happened a few times, most strikingly while on an ocean shore late at night. The ocean waves crashed against the sand with a symphony of sound, and the stars shone bright in unfathomable numbers overhead. It was glorious, and yet I was aware that this rich nature cared not a wit about me. The same might be said of truth.

Assemblyman Zwicker, whose first slide included a quote from an astronomer, ended his talk with a quote from Carl Sagan, an astronomer who studied at the observatory I grew up next to: