December 21, 2022

Landscaper Death Exposes Hazards of Town’s Yard Waste Collection Policies

To the Editor:

As suspected, the death of a landscaper after being struck by a car on Mercer Street occurred while the landscaper was in the roadway, blowing leaves into a pile for collection. There simply is no way for a landscaper to blow leaves into the street for collection without then having to step out onto the pavement to retrieve stray leaves and neaten up the pile. Hazard is inherent in loose leaf collection. The October 28 tragedy was waiting to happen.

It follows then that anyone who cares about public safety must also be questioning town yard waste collection policies that force workers, bikers, and joggers out into traffic. The hazard is multiplied on busier, higher speed roads.

At the same time, people such as myself who live on a busy street in town are poorly served by the current leaf collection policy. It’s particularly dangerous for us to pile leaves on the pavement. Our choices then are to either stuff them into awkward, small, single-use yard waste bags, or pile them on the extension — that narrow band of grass between curb and sidewalk. Leaf piles can kill grass, leaving ugly bare spots on roadsides. 

The awkwardness for homeowners is compounded by what town crews must do to pick up loose leaves along busy streets. I’ve seen caravans of three or four lumbering public works vehicles and five to six staff, blocking busy roads while workers rake leaf piles off the extension and onto the pavement so the giant claw can scoop them up and drop them into a dump truck. Many of these leaf piles are like fluffy pillows that could easily be stuffed into a compost cart rather than muscled about by giant vehicles. While some may feel reassured by this public display of service, I see rather a display of inefficiency and needless expense.

There is a solution that would not only increase safety but also benefit the town’s budget, aesthetics, and environment. Shift to containerized collection of leaves on busy streets, augmenting leaf bags with large, convenient compost carts. Princeton’s existing collection of yard waste bags can be adapted to the purpose by retrofitting an existing truck with an inexpensive tipper hook to empty the carts. As I have frequently pointed out to Princeton’s leadership, this approach has been successful elsewhere in the country, including municipalities that have as many trees as we do.

Of course, as someone who values leaves for nutrients and habitat, I have no need of the town’s yard waste collection, preferring to mow leaves back into the lawn, or toss them into leaf corrals where they quickly settle back into the soil. The paradox of our species is that people are tremendously adaptable, yet highly resistant to change, even when the status quo makes little sense. 

The town hired a consultant last year to review Princeton’s yard waste policies. I hope he is considering using busy streets as the place to demonstrate how better containerization can improve service while reducing the risk of more fatal collisions.

Steve Hiltner
North Harrison Street