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 blessings of mulch mowing, leaf corrals, and incorporating leaves into the landscape.

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 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, stepped upon only by the mowing crew. One of the characters in my climate change theater is a lawn who plays the 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 unintimidating and easily managed. We can't all have a deep knowledge of plants and plantcare, and most landscape companies are 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 some whose interest stops at the property line, this pile of grass clippings is as invisible as the fossil carbon emanating from our 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. 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 it stays true to its claim not to collect grass clippings, they then just sit there for weeks, looking ugly and raising a stink if disturbed, given the anaerobic decomposition going on inside the dense pile.

If the town offered compost carts to residents to store yardwaste for weekly collection, this homeowner's needs could be accommodated. The clippings' high nitrogen content would be containerized rather than loose in the street, and could then help the town's windrows of yardwaste heat up out at the Lawrenceville compost center on Princeton Pike.

One 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. 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 forced and encouraged to change their ways, that's when an informative brochure will come in handy for enough people to make a difference.

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?