Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Burning Wood from Europe in Princeton

There are really only two sources of ethical energy in Princeton for powering our homes and vehicles, and both of them come from the sun that shines on our town. That solar energy can be collected by solar panels, or by plants, whether they be trees that store the energy in their wood, or crops that power people and livestock. Though solar panels are about 20 times more efficient than trees at capturing useable energy, the wood is still potentially useful for powering a portion of our lives. Alas, most of the harvest from Princeton's urban forest is ground up and carted away for composting outside of town, powering only the decomposers that quickly send much of the captured carbon back into the atmosphere. Might there be ways that wood could help Princeton trim its dependence on fracked natural gas, whose environmental downsides are becoming harder to ignore?

While Princeton is largely spurning its own harvest of wood, the local supermarket is selling firewood from Europe.

The label says the wood comes from an "Eco Forest," though it's hard to see what's eco about shipping firewood all the way across the Atlantic.

Another brand appears to come from Maryland, which is closer by. But all of these woods are kiln-dried, which likely means heating the wood with fossil fuels to kill any pests or diseases that might otherwise hitchhike in the wood.

There is some local firewood available, mostly through arborists like Wells Tree Service. Then there are people like me, who scavenge and split firewood left on the curb. Our woodstove is a treasured component of our winter heating. It's radiant heat is superior in comfort to the forced air heat of our furnace. It burns much more cleanly and efficiently than a fireplace, and could heat the whole house with its wonderful radiance. On a cold night, when the wood stove is going and the gas furnace has thankfully gone silent, we can feel for those hours what it would be like to liberate ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels. It's a nice feeling that can't be accessed by using wood imported from Europe.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Theater: Onstage Seniors -- Two Upcoming Performances

Catch one of these last two performances of this year's show: In or Out: Stories of Belonging and Exclusion:
Our McCarter Theater-based Onstage Seniors create documentary theater performances that explore the stories of our local community. In or Out: Stories of Belonging and Exclusion features stories performed by actors, based on real-life interviews. In or Out includes both humorous and moving accounts of the search for belonging, and the moments along the way when one feels rejected, excluded, accepted, or embraced.

Our ensemble members — all over 55 — perform in theaters, libraries, schools, and senior centers generating delight, insight, and affirmation about senior memories and experiences.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

What Does It Mean To Fight Climate Change?

Below is a letter to the editor that I wrote recently, prompted by a front page headline in a local paper. In addition to its other news coverage, the Town Topics covers local sports. As an environmentalist who is also a sports fan, I sometimes think that climate change is a (very serious) game where the scoreboard is locked in the basement. Sports and the stock market generate numbers in real time for all of us to see and react to. Numbers count just as much in climate change, whether we generate them personally or collectively, but these numbers have been traditionally hidden away, depriving us of the immediate feedback we need to be part of the game. 

Dear Editor,
It was good to see that fighting climate change made the front page of Town Topics a couple weeks ago [“Environmental Forum, Sustainable Princeton Fight Climate Change,” Oct. 23]. There is a common confusion, though, between talk and action. The urgency expressed at the Princeton Environmental Institute’s Environmental Forum about the need to shift rapidly away from fossil fuel dependence contrasted starkly with what we see on the streets and barren rooftops of Princeton. The most visible evidence is pointing in the wrong direction, as internal combustion vehicles swell in size and number, and PSEG digs up our streets to install new fossil fuel lines. If news of Princeton fighting climate change were real, it would tell us how many solar panels had recently been added to schools, homes, businesses, and parking lots. It would tell us how many more teachers were hired with money saved through energy conservation. We would see trees being strategically planted and trimmed to maximize their carbon absorption and minimize their conflict with solar panels.

Along with the charismatic climate scientist Stephen Pacala, the most inspiring speaker at the Environmental Forum was George Hawkins, who spoke unabashedly of how government agencies can be innovative and efficient, and how he had made Washington, D.C.’s water, and even its sewage, a source of pride. Sewage, it turns out, can heat buildings, generate electricity, and fertilize crops. Princeton’s own “biosolids,” enriched and ennobled by its many Nobel laureates, surely deserves a better fate than to be incinerated with vast doses of fossil fuel and carted off to a landfill.

Similarly, we continue to largely spurn the sunlight striking our rooftops and parking lots, and the solar energy embedded in wood and brush from our urban forest. Wood, I learned at another University event, has an energy density 17 times that of lithium ion batteries. The greatest waste is of our own resourcefulness and adaptability, which could be summoned to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels rather than to merely react to worsening disasters.

Once people become acutely aware of their own unintentional but very real contribution to the radicalization of weather, then they begin seeking ways to extract themselves and their community from that morally-challenged role as dystopia’s lackey. Turning away from fossil fuels means turning towards the nature that resides within us and all around us. What Hawkins achieved in D.C. is an opening of minds, an awakening of creativity to take advantage of all the renewable gifts of nature — physical, chemical, biological — that have long been spurned.

Fighting climate change — a collectively created problem — requires a spirit, unity of purpose, and an attention to numbers that most people only experience in sports. For example, to track our progress, our monthly utility bills would show us five-year trends in our individual and community energy and water consumption. We would be provided the same information for our schools and government. We would take pride in producing more energy and consuming less. Community progress would spur us to do even more as individuals. That’s when we’ll know we’re really fighting climate change.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Teaching a Teenager to Ride a Bike at Westminster's "Learning Grounds"

Earlier this fall, a family from Buenos Aires came for a visit, and at some point it became known that the son, Mariano, had somehow reached the age of 16 without having learned to ride a bike. Princeton seemed the perfect place to rectify that situation, and so he and I headed over to nearby Westminster Choir College, bike in tow.

It was funny, as we walked towards Westminster on a weekend afternoon, to see kids and adults riding by on their bikes. They suddenly looked like showoffs. One realizes that what we take for granted is really a special skill--a kind of mainstreamed circus act.

Youtube videos on how to teach an adult to ride recommend using a sidewalk or other paved surface, but my preference for passing along this life-transforming skill is a smoothly sloping lawn. My younger daughter learned on this slope at Westminster Choir College, though she had the advantage of being much younger, with less far to fall if things went awry.

Videos offer some basic tips. Set the seat low so they can use their feet like trainer wheels. Have them look ahead, not down, and get comfortable using the brakes to control speed. Don't bother with the pedals until they've gained some stability coasting with legs hanging down to the sides.

I was surprised at how satisfying it is to mentor someone, to pass a life-changing skill from one generation to the next. My role was to offer some pointers, then watch as he would head off down the slope, gaining in balance and confidence each time.

We were on "learning grounds", a special spot overseen by proud Williamson Hall, with beautiful cloud patterns against the glorious evening sky, a half moon, and then the beauty of a bicyclist-in-the-making heading off into the distance, each time more on his own, a metaphor for how the mentored gain independence and ultimately go forth into the world. In this case, Mariano will take this learning with him back to a distant home, to finally join his friends on bike rides in Buenos Aires.

The advantages of learning to ride a bike in Princeton became even more apparent when Mariano had gained sufficient skill to head out on an expedition with his father. We took the big loop that begins with the towpath along the DR Canal, then headed back towards Princeton on the bikepath next to Quaker Road, passing the Updike Farm, Princeton Friends School, the Stonybrook Meeting House,

then stopped at the Princeton Battlefield, where Mariano translated the story of the great victory for his father.

We came next to the backside of the Institute for Advanced Study, with its brainy tradition beginning with Flexner, Veblen and Einstein.

For Mariano, a new world of self-propelled mobility was opening up. For me, it was a chance to pass along the benefits of a sort of mentoring that I received briefly in my youth, on the learning grounds surrounding another great institution--Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, longtime home of the University of Chicago's astronomy department. There, a grad student from Canada named Mike Marlboro taught me how to kick a football. It doesn't sound like much, and certainly didn't prove to be the ticket to new worlds, but something in his unrushed manner and tone of voice made me--a little kid among intimidating adults--feel worthwhile. I would watch with amazement at the beautiful spiral and arc of the ball as he made it soar into the sky, and then he'd show me how he did it, with a patience that stretched to the stars. He may have only mentored me a few times, and yet I've felt a lifetime of gratitude for the way he stepped out of his adult world to accept me as I was, and help me along my way.

The ground, I like to think, remembers the learning that happens upon it. Like the Mercer Oak that is said to have witnessed the Battle of Princeton during the Revolutionary War, ground gains in meaning for what it witnesses. As I write this, the future of Westminster Choir College is in jeopardy, and after 120 years the University of Chicago pulled out of Yerkes Observatory, turning that proud learning grounds into what feels now more like a cemetery. A distinguished edifice overlooking expansive green--our lives are aided and ennobled by such places, and I'd like to think future lives will be, too.

Another post about mentoring Mariano, When the Body Teaches the Mind, describes the process of teaching him to chop wood.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The State of State Democracy in Trenton

A sparse but engaged audience showed up to hear the good news that democracy is alive and well in Trenton. State government passes hundreds of bills meant to improve life in New Jersey, and a substantial number of those bills are initiated not by legislators but by constituents.

It was enough to make me think of calling Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman (our assemblymen), or maybe even our senator, Republican Kip Bateman, and offering some ideas. Frankly, I was surprised I could even summon their names, given the prevalent disconnection between voters and local representatives. It helped that my daughter had worked for Zwicker's first campaign, which he won by 78 votes.

We were advised that it's easiest to reach out to Assemblymen, since there are two covering the same territory as one senator, and there is added timeliness because the two representing Princeton are perched at the top of the ticket for November's election. The race between Democrats and Republicans for those seats tends to be tight, so every vote matters.

Ingrid Reed was the moderator who organized the event, bravely seeking to counter widespread apathy and cluelessness about the state government just down the road. State Senator Linda Greenstein spoke convincingly about how she had won elections by finding out who votes and then knocking on their doors. Making personal connections had gotten her on the ballot and over the top on election day. Former State Senator Jennifer Beck later questioned the utility of knocking on doors in an age when opponents can repeatedly deliver negative broadsides to targeted voters via Facebook. Former NJ Assemblyman Skip Cimino reassuringly spoke of factors that discourage corruption. A representative may try to condition support of a bill by demanding money for some project in his or her district, but granting such wishes can lead to others withdrawing the support they had offered without conditions. As a Republican in a Democrat-controlled state government, Beck was able to get some of her legislation passed by channeling it through supportive Democrats and giving them the credit. They said that a lot of power is concentrated in the legislative leaders, though the Assembly Speaker, Craig Coughlin, is good about seeking input from others.

Though I didn't ask about it, I'm puzzled by what seems like a disconnect between state and local government. For instance, why are manufactures allowed to make packaging out of a baffling variety of materials, and leave it up to the consumer to figure out whether it's recyclable or not? This lack of regulation greatly complicates our lives. And why does the state lay down rules on putting loose leaves and brush into the street, then "leaves" each town on its own to scramble, usually ineffectively, to live by the law. And why is the most visible action on energy the digging up of our streets by PSEG to lay new gas lines, when the urgent need is to break our dependence on fossil fuels?

Personal course of action: Vote, and look into it all more later.

Friday, October 04, 2019

How to Easily Reduce Water Use

If you go to the American Water website and log into your account, you'll find under the tab "usage" a link called "usage overview". Click on that and it takes you to a graph like the one below. Click on the "Neighborhood Average Usage" box in the upper right and a green line will appear that compares your water consumption to the local average.

Below is what ours looks like. We use about 2000 gallons per month, which is less than a sixth of the local average. How do we manage this? We're empty nesters for one, but it's mostly a matter of valuing water, and understanding that every time you turn on the tap, you're consuming elaborately treated water that was pumped 20 miles uphill to Princeton, and that every bit of the water that goes down the drain then has to be elaborately and expensively treated at the Stonybrook wastewater treatment plant on River Road. That understanding makes us less cavalier about water use. Some easy strategies for reducing consumption are listed below the graph.

  • Resilient native landscaping, and mulch to prevent the soil from drying out
  • Get in the habit of turning the water off when washing hands, brushing teeth, i.e. don't let water run straight from faucet to drain. 
  • Shorter showers, or even "Navy" showers (turn water off while lathering up)
  • low flow toilets (people liked to make fun of them, but they flush better than the inefficient older style); lots of good brands. Ours are American Standards available at the local hardware.
  • Get in the habit of using cold water for most tasks, rather than waiting for the hot water to arrive at the faucet. 
  • Front load washing machines use a minimum of water
  • See below for way to minimize water use when washing dishes.
  • I once learned that your annual sewer bill is calculated based on your water usage in the winter (likely Jan-March), since they want to charge you only for water that goes down the sewer, not the water you use in summer to irrigate your yard. Therefore, winter is an especially good time to hone your water conservation habits, since it will save you money on your sewer bill year-round. 
  • Adjust your water heater (somewhere in your basement) so that it only heats the water slightly beyond the hottest water you need. Many water heaters are needlessly overheating water, which is not only wasteful and expensive, but also leads to lots of fiddling with faucet handles to mix in just the right amount of cold water. Ideally (though no use of fossil fuels is ideal), you should be able to turn the hot water on for a shower--no cold at all--and be comfortable.
  • A novel approach to hand-washing dishes: One doesn't need standing water in the sink. Moisten the dishes while stacking them in the sink, to soften the dirt. That way, nature does most of the work. Put some dish soap on a sponge, then with the water turned off, wash some dishes and set them on the counter. Turn water on to rinse that batch, using the rinse water to further moisten the unwashed dishes in the sink. Then turn the water off and wash some more. This way, no time is wasted turning the water on and off to rinse each separate dish. Sounds elaborate, but quickly becomes second nature, and avoids having water running directly from faucet to drain--the ultimate in pointless consumption. Also, try using only cold water. Water that isn't hot enough to kill germs just makes them stronger. Hot water may be needed if there's grease, but otherwise is not essential. Best time to start the habit of using cold water is in the summer, but the habit once established can often continue through the winter.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Funkiest Recycling Containers Ever at Princeton University Football Stadium

People celebrate Princeton for many things. Computers had some of their beginnings here, as did football apparently, which is now celebrating its 150th anniversary at the Princeton University stadium.

I wish that, for this grand occasion, they might have sprung for some new recycling containers to adorn the stadium's fine interior. Instead, the stainless steel containers that were dysfunctional ten years ago are even moreso now. It's more accurate to call them anti-recycling containers.

Back when I was trying to improve recycling, I devoted a whole blog to critiquing public recycling containers, so few of which are well designed. Walk down the stadium's interior corridors--a nice sort of indoor/outdoor experience--and you'll see some of the most confusing labeling imaginable.

This one says "recycling", but the "bottles-cans" label is crossed out.

Two of this one's labels suggest recycling, but the third label says "trash." Does one go with the majority?

There are two basic rules for successful recycling: Pair up the trash and recyclables containers, because people won't take the time to go searching for the right container. And create a clear visual distinction between the two containers. Otherwise, people throw stuff wherever.

Here's a particularly helpful post from more than ten years ago that describes the recycling situation at Jadwin Gym, and how it could be easily and inexpensively improved. It was written back when I was contacting Princeton University's athletic department, wanting to help them improve their stadium recycling. We made some progress, but in the end, the lack of motivation for maintenance staff ultimately undoes any improvements initiated from above.

A better design for a recycling container is this one, in the minority at the stadium, shaped like the bottles you're supposed to put in it.

Another good design has been used in Princeton's parks for many years. It won't win awards for beauty, but actually works. The trash and recycling receptacles are paired and of contrasting appearance. It isn't expensive, and it really isn't hard.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

How to Reduce Princeton's Pollution of Local Waterways

It's been heartening to see Sustainable Princeton alerting residents to the dangers posed to local waterways by the common practice of tossing loose leaves and other organic matter into the streets. Yardwaste often sits for weeks in the street, decomposing and releasing nutrients into stormdrains connected to Carnegie Lake. Three SP mass emails have pointed out how the nutrients in leaves contribute to algae blooms. Nutrient runoff also reduces the dissolved oxygen aquatic life needs to survive.

Many people probably think that by putting leaves on the streets, they are contributing material that will laudably be turned into fine compost at the ecological center. Though it's true that the composting center makes fine compost, there are some environmental downsides. Fossil fuels are burned to collect the leaves, and even the industrial scale composting process is fuel-intensive. Exporting organic matter makes one's soil less absorbent of rainfall, adding to downstream flooding. In addition, the combined collection of leaves and brush from Princeton and Lawrenceville has overwhelmed the 5 acre composting center's capacity.

It's easy for most residents to avoid putting leaves out in the street, by using various methods described on SP's Sustainable Landscaping webpage, yet these "leave the leaves" strategies are unlikely to be widely adopted, for a host of reasons.

While Sustainable Princeton is calling on residents to utilize their leaves on their properties, Princeton's current collection policy has had the unfortunate effect of encouraging unlimited purging of organic matter from private properties. Rules described on the town website, designed to abide by state laws limiting organic pollution in the streets, have proven difficult to enforce. The result is that residents and their landscapers throw leaves and other yard residue out into the streets without regard to complex collection schedules. This highly visible behavior, often in violation of state law and local ordinance, is then emulated by neighbors, until the least environmentally friendly behavior becomes the norm. No amount of education can overcome town practices that lead to unlimited purging.

While investing heavily in loose pickups, the Princeton Public Works Department has shown little interest in offering residents better options for containerizing leaves. The only option currently is to squeeze the leaves into single use yardwaste bags. Leaf piles are mostly air, and a surprising quantity of leaves can be compressed into the paper bags, but they are an imperfect means of containerization. The bags get wet in the rain, are unstable and difficult to drag to the curb.

In addition, the town only collects bagged yardwaste for 17 weeks each year. During the large gap in service during the summer, the streetscape is adorned with the huddled masses of uncollected leaf bags that must wait until October for collection to resume. The bags also hide their contents, which may include forbidden materials like soil and rocks.

There is also a disconnect in people's perceptions, in which residents seem unaware that the pile of yardwaste they place next to or in the street might spoil the curb appeal of an otherwise well-groomed yard. Residents on busy streets often place their loose yardwaste on the extension, which then kills the grass, further marring the Princeton streetscape.

Since Princetonians pay high taxes and yardwaste collection is one of the most visible services provided in return, the only solution I know of is to begin offering residents a better option for containing the yardwaste. For a minimal investment, the town could augment its current bagged leaf collection by providing compost carts of the sort used widely elsewhere in the country. These have large capacity, covers and wheels. Distributed to interested residents, for a onetime fee or for free, compost carts can containerize the majority of leaves and other yardwaste currently being tossed loose in the streets throughout spring and summer. In combination with techniques like mulch mowing that reduce the quantity of leaves that might otherwise be piled in the street, compost carts can play an important role in the fall season as well.

Collection of containerized leaves in compost carts in bags could either be increased to weekly through most of the year, or the 17 current pickups could be made every other week rather than weekly.

With better containerization options, achieved with minimal investment by the town, public works officials will have more reason to expect residents to abide by local and state law, since residents can begin using compost carts to store their yardwaste until pickup day, rather than making illegal piles in the street. Town streets will become more attractive, less hazardous for bicyclists, and less polluting of local waterways. Ultimately, the town may be able to reduce the expensive loose collections as containerization provides more frequent and consistent service to residents.

In addition, compost carts will enhance the capacity of collection crews to enforce regulations. The carts reveal their contents when emptied into the truck, so that any unallowed materials can be seen, and a notice of violation easily placed on the cart. If carts have scannable identification codes, then notices of violation can be sent electronically by email. Currently, if residents put banned materials loose in the street, like grass clippings, the only practical option for enforcement is to leave the banned materials uncollected, to continue rotting and releasing even more nutrients into local waterways.

Past attempts to make compost carts available to residents have been stymied by a tendency of decision-makers to be quickly swayed by objections, whether valid or not. The compost carts are improbably characterized as being both too large for residents to store and too small to hold sufficient amounts of yardwaste. One official questioned the durability of the carts. Though it's useful to vet any new service, there needs to be a sympathetic entity willing to vet the objections as well, keeping in mind the many benefits. Why, we must ask, would compost carts not work in NJ when they are widely used elsewhere in the country?

Most importantly, compost carts will be an educational tool to shift habits. Standing on the curb on collection day, one day a week, a compost cart provides a strong visual cue to neighbors that containerization is the behavior to emulate.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Jazz Fast at Palmer Square

Yesterday was a beautiful day for a Jazz Feast, but that annual event at Palmer Square slipped into history a couple years ago. In its place is Music Fest, whose program this year looked longingly backwards towards bygone eras of jazz and rock. Gone is the mix of young jazz talent and veteran performers. I listened briefly to the one jazzish group on the bill. A crooner imitated Frank Sinatra well in voice, and the band dutifully played down classic arrangements by Neal Hefti and Nelson Riddle. There was not one solo, just a trip down memory lane. I felt sad and moved on. All this sentimentalism made me want to go back to a not so distant past when Palmer Square was generously bringing us jazz that had a past, present and a future.

Just down Nassau Street, I stopped at the native prairie growing above the renovated underground portions of the Princeton University library. It was planted in homage to Betsy Stockton. Once the slave of a university president, she was freed and went on to found a school for African American students in Princeton, and helped found the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.

The prairie, a complex planting, is being maintained well by the university, and pollinators were feasting on the asters, while I, a jazz lover, was in fast mode.

In more ways than jazz, in the past there was a future. We honor the past by looking forward as well as back. For jazz fasters in Princeton, outdoor jazz may start blooming in April, not September, and be on the gown side of the town/gown Nassau Street divide. Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is doing great things as director of Jazz at Princeton University, including the second annual jazz festival on campus, April 18, 2020.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Stand Up to Save Westminster Choir College

All members of the Princeton community are being urged to stand up for the future of one of our great educational institutions, Westminster Choir College. There's an open meeting tonight, September 10, 7pm at Nassau Presbyterian Church, organized by the Westminster Foundation. Those unable to go or get in can watch the event streamed live on the Foundation's website.

As a neighbor, I find the sequence of events puzzling. Rider University acquired Westminster Choir College, invested heavily in renovating and augmenting the facilities, with a new parking lot and performance hall, only to now seek to abandon it all by moving the choir college to apparently nonexistent facilities on the main campus in Lawrenceville.


Perhaps an early sign of impermanence came five years ago, when they built a performance hall with a roof perfectly positioned to collect renewable energy, then didn't install the solar panels. In that sense, threats to one of our great local institutions are a part of a larger ongoing threat to life as we know it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Ideal Integration of Trees and Solar Panels Remains the Exception Rather Than the Rule

Why is Princeton not covering its homes with solar panels? There's always an excuse. The roof may face the wrong direction, or it's shaded by trees, or the shingles are too old, or the owners are just there for a few years and see solar panels as something longterm. Meanwhile, our houses remain part of the climate problem when they could be part of the solution. Each person's decision seems minor, while the collective impact threatens our future. Solar is essentially free now, but the lack of a strong community call to action has made it hard for most of us to get beyond excuses.

These three photos--taken in different directions from the same spot--tell a story indicative of our curious response to climate change's urgency. The first shows an ideal integration of trees and solar panels. The next two show how investment in the rest of the neighborhood is shunning solar in favor of additional investment in fossil fuel delivery.

The first photo shows the perfect way to combine trees and solar panels to give a house optimal cooling and energy production. The house faces south, so it has the perfect orientation for panels on the roof. But how about those trees in front? Well, they are a kind of tree that doesn't get very high--some sort of crab apple or ornamental cherry perhaps, the kind that stay low or can easily be trimmed back to keep them from shading the panels. Though not as large as an oak or maple, they nonetheless are providing the many benefits of a tree. They are evaporating water through their leaves, which cools the air around them, and their roots and branches are sequestering carbon they take in from the air. Many native tree species would work well in this niche: redbud, flowering dogwood, hawthorn, red buckeye, musclewood, pawpaw.

Though the trees aren't high enough to shade the roof, the solar panels are providing a complete and effective shading, while also generating renewable electricity. Smaller trees are safer than big ones around a house, and cheaper to remove if they need to be taken down and replaced. So there's a lot to like about this setup.

Meanwhile, look down the street and you see a long line of houses also perfectly oriented, and without any trees getting in the way. Perhaps because I grew up on WWII movies, they look to me like battleship row--structures that could be defending our country by generating renewable energy. And yet they stand idle. The first one there, with the metal roof, was reportedly designed with solar panels in mind, yet they were never installed.

Solar panels on a roof are one way of saying the future matters, that we need as a people to become producers as well as consumers. In economics, sucking fossil fuels from the ground is called "production," but it's not. It's extraction. It gives us present comfort and mobility, but takes from the earth and takes from our future. America will truly start "making stuff again" when our houses begin producing as much energy as they consume.

That big metal plate in the street in this third photo shows that not only are most houses not producing energy, but the infrastructure for natural gas delivery is being updated and improved. PSEG is installing higher pressure lines that, according to one of the workers, will prevent moisture from infiltrating. PSEG presents this nearly $2 billion investment as good news, emphasizing that old, potentially leaky pipes are being replaced. But the NJ Sierra Club came out against it. Most of the money appears to be going to expanding fossil fuel distribution at a time when radical reductions are needed.

People emulate their neighbors. If enough people get solar panels installed, others will think it's the thing to do. Trees and solar together, like that first house--an obvious solution remains the exception rather than the rule.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Another Summer of Messy Streets and Ordinance Violations Begging for a Solution

We have a little dog named Leo, and though he didn't seem very interested in the solar eclipse two years ago, he does take an enduring interest in walking the streets of Princeton,

which gives me as longtime designated dogwalker the opportunity to update my ongoing report on the state of streets in our fair town.

Frequently, not just in the fall but almost year-round, the streets are lined with piles large and small of yardwaste, detracting from whatever beauty residential neighborhoods might have.

The state of New Jersey long ago made clear a preference for containerized yardwaste. Page 71 of New Jersey's "Model Ordinances" recommendations for municipalities states (emphasis added):
The owner or occupant of any property, or any employee or contractor of such owner or occupant engaged to provide lawn care or landscaping services, shall not sweep, rake, blow or otherwise place yard waste, unless the yard waste is containerized, in the street. If yard waste that is not containerized is placed in the street, the party responsible for placement of yard waste must remove the yard waste from the street or said party shall be deemed in violation of this ordinance.
This makes it sound like Princeton's program of loose yardwaste collection is completely out of step with state guidelines, but then the state provides a bit of latitude. Under Section III: Yardwaste Collection, the state's recommended town ordinance reads:
Sweeping, raking, blowing or otherwise placing yard waste that is not containerized at the curb or along the street is only allowed during the seven (7) days prior to a scheduled and announced collection, and shall not be placed closer than 10 feet from any storm drain inlet. Placement of such yard waste at the curb or along the street at any other time or in any other manner is a violation of this ordinance. 
Given the state's clear preference for keeping streets free of yardwaste, and an ordinance that limits the time any yardwaste can sit on the street to one week, what is Princeton's collection schedule? Regard below the complex schedule for yardwaste pickups that Princetonians are supposed to scrutinize and time their gardening with. Note that there's a 3-6 week gap between pickups in the summer. That means that residents have no way to legally dispose of yardwaste for many weeks. What happens is that residents throw yardwaste in the streets anyway, in violation of state and local law.

Further complicating disposal and collection, residents are asked not to mix leaves and brush at the curb. Brush is used to make woodchip mulch. A good mulch lasts a long time, but if leaves are mixed in with the wood, the ground up mulch breaks down too fast.

What is a resident supposed to do with non-woody yardwaste (called "leaves" in the schedule) from May through September, when no pickups are scheduled? Below is a collection of photos that provide an answer, taken along a two-block stretch of Linden Lane and Ewing Street. Essentially, the streets become a storage area for leaves and other herbaceous materials from the garden, mixed in with a few sticks.

The infrequent collections mean that state and local laws are regularly being violated, and the yardwaste that finally gets collected is likely contaminating the brush composting process at the Lawrenceville composting center. The town's collection program seems out of sync with resident's gardening habits, and makes it very hard to adhere to state and local law. Princeton is not the only New Jersey town that struggles with this problem, which has only increased over the years.

How many residents along a two block stretch currently lack a good way to legally dispose of yardwaste during the summer? Here's a count:

2nd pile








10th (Piling leaves/brush loose on the lawn kills the grass)







This appears to be mostly brush, but lots of leaves mixed in.

17th - piled too close to the stormdrain. Containerization would avoid this violation of ordinance.


19th -- This one includes a flower bouquet.


21st -- another violation that could be avoided by containerization



24th -- a mix of wood and herbaceous yardwaste.

25th -- containerization of non-woody yardwaste ("leaves") would avoid not only the clogging of the stormdrain but also the unsightly scar in the grass where a pile of yardwaste had sat too long.

One of the piles above later got grass clippings added to it. The town forbids putting grass clippings out for collection, because their high nutrient content could pollute local waterways, but some homeowners do it anyway.

And the fall's first pile of leaves in the street, blocking half the lane, in mid-August. These are probably leaves from a sycamore. Some species of trees, susceptible to this or that disease, tend to drop some leaves in the summer. The town's schedule doesn't have these leaves being picked up until October.

In the past, I've suggested that the town make large compost carts available to residents so that they can containerize much of their yardwaste and put it out on the curb for one of the weekly pickups. Nearly all of the piles shown above would easily fit into a large compost cart, so that they could be stored by the resident out of sight, rather than marring the streetscape for weeks.

These compost carts, widely and effectively used elsewhere in the country, have in Princeton been uncharitably described as either too small to hold sufficient yardwaste to make a difference, or too large for residents to store on their property. Why, when they are widely used elsewhere, would they somehow be both too large and too small for Princetonians?

In the meantime, our streets remain messy much of the year, with numerous violations of state and local ordinances. For gardeners who don't want to have a compost pile or leaf corral, there needs to be a convenient way to store and legally dispose of yardwaste.