Monday, July 15, 2019

Invasive Tree Growth Contributes to Near Fatal Accident

There's a dangerous spot on Quaker Road where traffic makes a sharp left turn to cross the DR Canal. Recently, a car didn't make the turn and instead went flying through this guard rail and into the canal. The driver in the sinking car was saved by a nearby resident roused in the middle of the night by the sound of the crash.

You'd think there'd be lots of signs warning of the impending 90 degree turn, but the article in Town Topics stated that this stretch of road comes under multiple governmental jurisdictions, none of which has ultimate responsibility for its safety.

Perhaps due to this lack of clear responsibility, there is only one warning sign, and it was not visible that night.

I happened to be riding in a car out that way recently, and took some photos as we passed by. There is the sign, on the right, obscured by the surge of growth we get every June, as trees extend their reach to catch more sunlight. This tree happens to be an Ailanthus, better known as Tree of Heaven, an invasive species from Asia that is common along roadsides. Introduced species that turn invasive also constitute the main chore for organizations that maintain nature trails.

Get a little closer and you can see that the sign is at least warning of a sharp turn..

Only when you're passing it can you see the recommended speed limit.

Though invasive species are particularly fast growing, a native box elder nearby would also have eventually grown over the sign. The take-home message here, beyond the lack of clear responsibility mentioned in the article, is a recurring one about the importance of maintenance. Few people, when seeing a clearly visible warning sign, think of the ongoing care that goes into keeping it visible. Yet maintenance is something our lives depend upon.

Close Call As Storm Threatens to Flood Princeton High School

Inside our house this past Thursday evening, we could hear the unusual weight and density of the rain falling on the roof. The downpour was heavy enough and extended enough that thoughts turned to Princeton High School, and the possibility that it might have flooded for a third time. The first two floods caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Most of the damage was paid for by insurance, though the impact on the schools' ongoing insurance costs is unknown.

I headed towards the school on Franklin Avenue, which had turned into a river as the town's stormdrain system became overwhelmed.

The detention basin next to the PHS tennis courts was reassuringly doing its job, collecting some runoff.

The ecolab detention basin between the arts and science wings was more worrisome, filling to within one foot of overflow.

The concrete slab installed to block overflow from pouring down the steps into the PHS basement was reassuring, though the sandbags left over from the last flood had long since decomposed in the sunlight and spilled their contents.

The drain next to the back entry to the wooden stage--the stage that already had to be replaced twice due to past flooding--had not been overwhelmed this time, fortunate since the rotted sandbags would have been of little use.

Same story on the ecolab side of the musical arts wing.

The first massive wave of the storm had already moved through when these pictures were taken. Some re-engineering of Walnut Street last year, when the broad new sidewalks were installed, seems to have helped. What we don't know is what would have happened if the downpour had lasted another fifteen minutes. With an overheated planet lifting ever more moisture up into the skies, some day we'll likely find out.

Dreaming of Clean Streets, Clean Air, and Lower Costs in Princeton

This is my dream for making clean streets, clean air and lower costs routine in Princeton: a compost cart put out for pickup on a specified day each week.

Though yardwaste bags could still be used, the cart would hold as much as all these bags together, and not require lifting by the resident nor the collecting crew, which would use a small hydraulic tipper hook to empty the cart.

And collection would happen most weeks of the year, and on a specific day of the week, like trash or recycling, so that the streets wouldn't be littered with crumpled bags of yardwaste for weeks on end,

as they soften, fester and ooze.

My dream is not this,

nor this, which backed up runoff during a recent rain,

nor this, which sat in the street for many days and caused a car to skid,

nor this, which festered in the street for weeks.


my dream is this. Let the giant collecting machines roll in autumn if people really need to purge their properties of leaves. Let the machines make special pickups of large doses of brush.

But for most weeks of the year, please, Princeton, make these compost carts available to residents. We deserve a pleasant streetscape. Be skeptical of the naysayers. This dream has been realized in municipalities across the country. Why not here?

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

The Composting Toilet Alternative to Porta-potties

While planning a recent event at Herrontown Woods, the question came up: Is there a more natural alternative to a plastic, chemical-laden porta-potty? Turns out there is, at least in Australia. It's called the Natural Event, and was developed there for use at festivals.

The Natural Event people are determined to "change the world from the bottom up," and their website declares that they are coming soon to the U.S.A.. Meanwhile, composting toilets like Nature's Head are getting good reviews in the tiny-house trade.

The key, it turns out, whether its a row of portable composting toilets at an event or a composting toilet installed in a tiny-house, is to separate the liquid from the solid. With pee going into a separate container, the solids remain dry and aerobic. This, along with aeration and/or a handful of sawdust or woodchips tossed on the solids after each use, reportedly eliminates the odors associated with porta-potties.

Funny thing is, when separated from the liquids, the solids really don't amount to much. Our bodies are built mostly of elements that come from the air--oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen--as is our food. A substantial portion of what we eat magically exits our bodies as CO2 exhaust when we exhale. The solids in a composting toilet, particularly in the non-portable indoor toilets that use assisted aeration rather than woodchips, dry out and compost down to nearly nothing.

The technology is there to bypass our traditional system, which manages to flush everything "away," but in so doing creates massive amounts of liquid waste that must then be transported and cleansed somewhere else at great expense. In Princeton, the so-called "biosolids" are then separated out, then incinerated using hundreds of thousands of dollars of natural gas, then landfilled.

The nutrient cycle of which we are a part, long interrupted, really could be mended. A user of a portable composting toilet in Plainfield, MA, says she doesn't use her indoor plumbing anymore. Strange to think that an individual could disengage from the sprawling system of sewer pipes and pricey wastewater treatment plants, and make use of what we've worked so hard for so long to get rid of.

But what are the chances, given the heavy regulation of sanitary processes, and the lack of regulation of all the fossil fuels burned to keep our current system going, that the composting toilet will be any different from all the other promising technologies that linger indefinitely on the fringes of society?