November 19, 2014

Proposing a Solution to Containerize Princeton’s Street Mess, Harmonize Its Compostable Exports

To the Editor:

At what point do we declare the system broken? Princeton and other towns struggle to deal with compostables: leaves, brush, yardwaste, and foodwaste. Some homeowners want the former borough’s frequent year-round looseleaf pickups restored and expanded to the whole town. Others see leaves as a gift of exercise and nutrients, easily accommodated on-site through composting and mulch-mowing.

Meanwhile, the town is losing talented staff due to a “dumbing down” of government, in which staff skills and training go unused in the year-round scramble to pick up yardwaste and brush. Other tasks that could be done in-house are instead contracted out at great expense.

This past spring, composting facilities were clogged by winter’s legacy of brush, forcing longer hauls and higher tipping fees. That fiasco is a mere warm-up for the imminent arrival of the emerald ash borer, whose devastation will overwhelm our composting facilities and municipal budgets for years to come.

Year-round dumping makes streets messy and repeatedly scarred by the blades of “The Claw.” Complicated pickup schedules and ordinances are widely ignored. Solutions are stymied by consolidation’s promise to maintain service levels, coupled with residents and landscapers resistant to change.

Undaunted, I will nonetheless propose a solution, risking a flurry of flaw-seeking missiles launched by legions of deeply entrenched skeptics. The aim here is to counter the maladies mentioned above, to simplify, routinize, economize, containerize much of the street mess, and harmonize Princeton’s compostable exports with what nearby composting facilities can handle.

Loose leaf pickup in the fall would be maintained, along with brush pickups following destructive storms. A homeowner could call in several times a year for special pickups of brush. But the core of the program would be year-round weekly pickups of containerized compostables. Each resident wanting the service would receive a rollout bin, large or small, to be supplemented if necessary with yardwaste bags or other containers the homeowner has around. Most homeowners will want a larger bin than those currently used for foodwaste.

The advantages are many. Compared to a yardwaste bag, rollout bins can hold three times as much, including sticks, and are much easier to fill and move around the yard. They keep their contents dry, and don’t tip over when placed at the curb. Trucks can be fitted with a hydraulic hook in back for $5000, speeding collection and sparing workmen’s backs.

Some may think it a burden to stow a rollout bin next to the garage, but that small sacrifice brings many shared gains. Imagine safe, clean streets nine months out of the year. Imagine a town staff using its skills to save tax dollars and deal with imminent threats like the ash borer, rather than chasing after loose blobs of yardwaste in August with the giant “Claw”. Imagine knowing that yardwaste will be picked up on the same day every week, with streetscapes uncluttered the other six. Containerization may even offer an opportunity for co-composting yardwaste and foodwaste.

Weekly containerized pickups will save money while sustaining service. It’s been done elsewhere to good effect. It can be done here.

Stephen Hiltner

North Harrison Street