Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Mercer County Needs to Upgrade its Recycling Containers

Here's a story that demonstrates two surprising aspects of life in Princeton: the stubbornly backward nature of recycling in Mercer County, and the prevalence of unintentional pollution. 

Sunday evening, I put my recyclables out on the curb for pickup on Monday. Rain was forecast, so I left the lids on the otherwise lidless yellow and green "buckets" that Mercer County supplies us. Without lids, rain soaks the paper and makes the containers heavier for the crews to empty into the truck, and may lower the recycling value of the paper. 

I thought of putting a brick on top of each lid to prevent them from being blown off in the storm, but didn't have any close at hand. 

The next day, I found the lids had been blown into the street by the storm and were quickly crushed by passing cars, breaking into myriad pieces. 

Really hoping that the new administration in Mercer County replaces these recycling buckets with rollcarts that 1) have greater capacity, 2) have wheels and 3) have attached lids. The county is decades behind on this.

Friday, March 03, 2023

Are Pizza Boxes Recyclable?

When I lived in Michigan, the first ever Dominoes Pizza store was just down the road a bit, in Ypsilanti. Having moved long since to NJ, I was surprised to find a Dominoes Pizza box show up in our house, touting how recyclable it is. New Jersey, or at least Mercer County, has long told us that pizza boxes are not recyclable. What gives? 

The best I can figure is that unstained pizza boxes were always recyclable, but that we're told not to recycle them because some boxes will have grease, cheese and leftover food still in them.

What Dominoes is touting is a study that showed that the stains and a few bits of food aren't enough of a problem to ban pizza boxes from the recycling stream. 

An article in Sierra Club Magazine, citing the same study, supports that point of view. 

The study was published three years ago, and we're still told not to recycle pizza boxes. Was the study proven wrong? Not according to an article in USA Today earlier this month. What's at stake is massive amounts of cardboard that can either be recycled or head to the landfill, where they will decompose anaerobically and produce climate changing methane, when they could instead be reducing the number of trees that need to be cut down to make more pizza boxes. To give a sense of scale, 13 million pizzas are sold on Super Bowl Sunday alone, according to the USA Today article. Cardboard is one of recycling's great success stories.

So, why are we still told not to recycle pizza boxes? Is the county worried that any food left in the pizza boxes will contaminate other recyclables? But food can sometimes be left in tin cans, and we're allowed to recycle those. Why are we trusted to remove food from cans and glass, but not pizza boxes? 

The situation reminds me of a battle I waged ten years ago. Back then, we were told that envelopes with those cellophane windows were not recyclable. Well-meaning recyclers thus spent time tearing the windows out of envelopes so we could recycle the paper portion. Was it really necessary? I did research back then that showed that the windows are easily filtered out during recycling. I reported this to the recycling coordinator at the time, but nothing changed. The town website persisted in directing people not to recycle envelopes with windows. In retrospect, the town probably had to state whatever the county told them to. Ultimately, after much delay, the county changed its website to reflect the reality that envelopes with windows can in fact be recycled.

Dominoes says its pizza boxes dream of becoming more pizza boxes. But change comes slowly to the Mercer County Improvement Authority, whose most recent news release was more than a year ago, stating that pizza boxes continue to not be recyclable. Whether for good reasons or bad, I doubt Mercer County will help that dream come true any time soon.


Here's the study's conclusion:

"The general conclusion of this work is that the strength loss of the resulting product made with recovered fiber that incorporates post-consumer pizza boxes should be minimal at typical levels of grease expected to be received in a recycling facility (<2%) and when included in the recovered fiber at expected levels of <3% of furnish. The addition of small amounts of cheese will not impact the fiber bonding in a negative way. It is expected that the larger chunks of cheese will be screened out of the process. Therefore, there is no significant technical reason to prohibit post-consumer pizza boxes from the recycle stream."

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Rollcart Conformity for Princeton's Trash

It's the end of an era for a certain kind of diversity in Princeton. For as long as I can remember, Princeton's streets have been on the receiving end of an endless variety of stuff to be hauled away. Be it trash, recyclables, leaves or brush, each house would present at the curb its own motley assortment. Large or small, containerized or piled loose--it hasn't mattered. It has all gotten hauled away. Rare was the street that remained clean, even for a day.

Last week, that began to change. A truck came by, distributing new rollcarts to households. 

And on Thursday, the hodgepodge of trash cans and plastic garbage bags that had for so long been the norm was replaced by order, standardization, uniformity. A truck comes along, plucks the container up, empties it and sets it back down again before heading to the next. 

Orient the rollcart the wrong way, and the truck may not be able to empty it. (Update: Looks like they still have a crewmember on the ground, who rolls the cart to a "tipper hook" in back to lift and empty the cart, rather than the more automated arm that comes out from the side of the truck. The mechanical tipper hook at least reduces back strain for the crew.)

One home tried putting out the usual mish-mash menagerie,
but only the new rollcart got emptied. 

A few days later, another truck came by to pick up these last old style outpourings, swallowing the old trash cans as well in one big gulp. Large items that don't fit into the new rollcarts can still get picked up, but the resident has to send in a request each time.

Can a town with an endless diversity of opinions, passionately held and frequently expressed, accept the conformity of the new rollcarts? One homeowner predicted rebellion, a grand uprising of discontent that would spill into the town council's chambers. 

Ten years ago, I came to the conclusion that Princeton was allergic to such conformity. That's when the borough and township merged. At the time, each household in the township had to find its own trash collection service. Some chose corporate collectors like Waste Management; others chose some self-styled collector with a pickup truck. Trucks of varied size and descriptions drove hither and yon in the township, chasing trash. 

I was sure that consolidated Princeton would do what so many other towns and cities have done, and go with the most efficient collection method, with industrial strength, uniform rollcarts built to be mechanically lifted and emptied into the truck. 

But no. Though one hauler was chosen for the newly consolidated Princeton, the trash cans became a free for all. 

Hardware stores were glad to sell every shape and size container, which crews would then lift and empty into the truck by hand, their backs apparently impervious to strain. Even if these store-bought containers had wheels and hinged lids, they were too flimsy and varied in shape to ever be plucked up by a machine and emptied in an efficient manner.
Over time, homeowners gravitated towards the convenience of wheels and hinged lids, but these were all rollcart wannabees lifted manually into the truck. 

The rollcart wannabes on the left in this photo, and all other nonconforming trash cans, are now exiled from the street. If each house has accumulated three trash cans over the years, that's 30,000 trash cans that have lost their raison d'etre. Surprisingly, no recycler was found for all this bulky plastic. I looked at the two I have. One says it's #4 plastic, the other #2. Residents were urged to find creative uses for the now outdated containers, but one can't help but grieve that the throwaway culture is still the norm that environmentalists must burn their energy urging people to creatively resist.

Another surprise was that the town chose to distribute the 64 gallon size containers instead of the standard 96. The logic here is that a smaller container will encourage people to produce less waste. 

We'll see how it all plays out. For those wishing to hold onto the good old days, there's still the county's yellow and green recycling buckets, which lack wheels and lids, and tip over in the wind, littering the streets with plastic. And we can still pile loose yardwaste and brush at the curb, to sit for weeks, bleaching in the sun.

Hopefully, Princeton will grow to like its new rollcarts, and apply their efficiency to the collection of recyclables and yardwaste as well. There can be comfort in conformity, while we pursue diversity in other ways.