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?

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