Steve Hiltner: Bring Yard Debris Container Program to Princeton

Stephen Hiltner
Steve Hiltner

One of the challenges of this era is how to extract the negative consequences from otherwise welcome features of our lives. As I write, a spring rain waters our newly planted gardens, strips the air of pollen, and cleans our streets, but the street cleaning component comes at the expense of the local waterways, which receive a dose of nutrients and pollution left on the streets by automobiles and piles of yard waste.

Likewise, the freedom to toss any brush, leaves or garden trimmings out on the street year-round is a great convenience for many homeowners, but makes our streets consistently look like dumping grounds, and consigns public work crews to a Sisyphean struggle to deal with the mess. In addition, the yard waste ordinance that limits when and how residents can put brush and yard waste out for pickup is widely ignored and largely unenforceable.

A big step forward in avoiding these negative aspects would involve homeowners piling their non-woody yard waste not in the street where everyone has to look at it, but instead in a corner of their property, disguised by fencing or shrubs if desired, where it can feed its nutrients back into the soil where they belong.

If this most natural and beneficial solution seems alien to an urbanized populace, then a program to provide weekly pickup of containerized yard waste would offer benefits. Princeton already has a service to pick up bagged yard waste, but the bags are awkward to use, tend to sit for days at the curb and, like those piles of yard waste, will not win any awards for streetscape beautification.

For a more attractive and convenient approach–standard practice in many municipalities around the country–homeowners would have large rollout bins to collect yard waste in for weekly pickup. This streamlines pickup keeps streets cleaner and frees up town staff for other duties. The bins are emptied using a small mechanical lever built into the back of the truck, reducing back strain for workers. The rollout bins have lids to keep the contents dry, lightening the loads being hauled out to the ecological facility. Homeowners with more than a bin’s worth of yard waste could buy an extra bin, augment with yard waste bags, or save the extra vegetative scraps for the next week’s pickup.

An exception to containerizing would be made during fall leaf season. And brush, which is slow to decompose in compost piles and also less likely to shed nutrients into local streams, could still be placed loose at the curb, now more in compliance with the ordinance, free of contaminating yard waste.

Another advantage of containerizing yard waste in this way is that these large bins (typically 95 gallon) could eventually also receive the homeowner’s kitchen scraps when the existing organics program is ramped up to include all households. Princeton’s current curbside organics pickup, well-received and now serving 600 households, is essentially a miniature version of what I’m proposing. Its small 32 gallon rollout bins are provided free with the service, can receive yard waste as well as kitchen scraps, and have minimal impact on streetscapes, remaining at the curb for only one day per week.

As a past member of the Princeton Environmental Commission, I proposed containerizing yard waste many times, and never really heard a convincing reason why it couldn’t be implemented. In the meantime, tidy front yards will continue to be obscured by “claw”-scarred, trash-lined streets, and the many useful things public works crews could otherwise be doing will remain undone.

For information on the town’s current yard waste collection program, which varies according to neighborhood and is greatly reduced during summer months, see the town’s website.

Mr. Hiltner is a Planet Princeton contributor and writes several blogs, including Princeton Primer.


  1. wont happen steve and you an i know each other people are way to lazy in princeton to try this i tried before

  2. The additional rollout bin would be nice if I had a place to store it. But at 1/5 of an acre, my yard is too small to devote space to another ugly container.

  3. We are adding some non-woody weeding waste to the organic compost bin. Things like garlic mustard and creeping Charlie.

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