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.