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.