For your Information/Earth/Future

As a Princeton student, who is often overwhelmingly busy scanning and processing an abundance of important things, it kinda becomes habit to overlook things that seem simple and self-explanatory. I have found that this has been the case up until now for my relationship with the Office of Sustainability at Princeton, the Princeton Garden Project, Composting, and Recycling (and I am guessing that some of my peers can relate).

Here are my previously assumed associations and functions of these programs and practices:

  • Office of Sustainability = Princeton making an effort to be energy efficient, recycle, use less plastic, etc.
  • Princeton Garden Project = Princeton students, who have less to do than I do/who are more motivated than I am, growing vegetables because they like to do nature-y things.
  • Composting = Put your food with other food so that it turns into dirt.
  • Recycling = Blue bins for bottles, cans, paper (i.e. the fifth grade definition of recycling), reduce, reuse, recycle, save the planet, Earth day, etc.

I have only just begun to look further into what these things actually mean and how I interact and influence their success and failure. Here is what I have found:

The Office of Sustainability-  

I am working under the Office of Sustainability this summer and I have been amazed by the projects I have come across while in closer contact with the office. The Office of Sustainability does not only work to promote the general “reduce, reuse, recycle” principle, but has a lot of influence regarding the future of Princeton campus and tradition. The office was established in 2006, and is the only college office of sustainability in New Jersey. You have probably seen the posters and brochures that tout Princeton’s impressive environmental statistics in catch-your-eye fonts so I will relate just one garden-related number so that is really stands out to me:

Sustainable food purchases have increased from 36 percent in 2007 to 60 percent today, with 44 percent produced within 250 miles of campus (Sustain Princeton Progress).

And I think that is really freaking cool.

When it was established, the Office of Sustainability created a Campus Plan for goals from 2006-2016. Over the past 10 years, they have worked with administration to significantly reduce campus water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and campus waste.

A lot of the time when students wonder what the Office of Sustainability actually does besides “sustain,” they think of the obvious issues that should be addressed by the office and seemingly haven’t been: water bottles at late meal/Frist and roommates who puts trash into the blue recycling bin in their dorm. This can lead to discounting the work that the Office of Sustainability does. But it is my impression that the office does not have complete control or free reign over things like eliminating plastic from campus and making sure students recycle.

Currently, the Office of Sustainability is working on a new Campus Plan (2016-2026). This project–although I don’t actually know all of the details–excites me the most among the functions of the department. Do you remember the Campus Compass that you were asked to take part in this year? Mapping the way that students and faculty interact with the campus is an important tool in figuring out how to create new campus spaces and how to make the most efficient use of Princeton. I didn’t take part in the survey because I was a “busy Princeton student with too much to do.” But now I wish that I had participated so that I could have more influence over the future use and look of our campus. The enormous potential for Princeton to be more efficient and “go green” (with all of its $$$green$$$) is awesome. And the folks in the Office of Sustainability have a major role to play in the development of Princeton campus and culture.

The Princeton Garden Project (and organic gardening in general)-

It would be way too difficult to describe everything that the garden does in this short post, so check out the website if you’re looking for more details. But I would like to point out a few key changes that have occurred in my opinions on the Princeton Garden Project in the past two months.

First, gardening is not only rewarding, it is really fun to do. The obvious upside to gardening is the harvest that you reap at the end of the day/week/month/season. But during the past two months, I have really enjoyed the activity itself. The words “weeding the yard” sound awful when you are 13 years old and they are coming out of your parent’s mouth. But weeding is actually a wonderful way to be outside, get rid of some pent up energy or frustration, or take some time to be mindless/mindful. Organic gardening is labor and time intensive, but often repetitive and relaxing. Work in the garden has been meditative and rewarding in itself.

But what does this work entail? What does organic gardening even mean?

Most of us have been conditioned to know that organic = good. But not many people know exactly what makes organic gardening good (or better than conventional food growing processes). When I say most people, I mean to say that I didn’t and if you are still reading, you probably don’t really know that much about it either.

Organic gardening means that your objective is not to make plants grow, but to create ecosystems where food can grow. Conventional food production uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that temporarily boost plant growth and health while damaging the soil and food in the long run. Organic gardening uses compost and natural fertilizers to enrich the soil without putting excess nutrients into the ground. Synthetic fertilizers often leave excess nutrients in the soil that rain or irrigation carries into lakes and rivers. These nutrients eventually end up in the ocean. You know the saying, “too much of a good thing…” Well, when too many nutrients gather in water sources, it causes algae to bloom in unnatural profusion. The algae uses up a lot of oxygen and eventually creates anaerobic “dead” zones in the ocean–where nothing that breathes oxygen can live. In contrast to conventional growing practices and its externalities, the goal of organic gardening is to enrich the soil with compost and just enough natural fertilizer to hold more water and nutrients.

Lindsey and her friend, the earthworm - Morgan Nelson, Photo

Lindsey and her/the garden’s friend, the earthworm – Morgan Nelson, Photo

Organic gardeners also avoid using pesticides that kill all pests, because there are “good” bugs and microbes that actually help maintain a healthy garden. Additionally, the pesticides that are sprayed onto plants eventually end up in the soil where food is growing. Researchers have found that food grown with these type of chemicals is less healthy for us humans/animals to eat.

The pros of organic food production are pretty apparent once the matter has been looked into a bit, even just with a simple google search. However, the yield difference between organic and conventional growth practices is significant enough to deter large scale operations, like farms, from converting to more environmentally friendly practices. Up until last week, having worked in the garden enough to know the amount of labor required for a mere 1.5 acre lot, I was pretty unconvinced by organic farming’s feasibility to be profitable as well.

However, last Friday, Lindsey and I visited Chickadee Creek Organic Farm in Pennington, NJ. The farm was opened by a Cornell graduate–a woman named Jess Niederer–who studied Natural Resources in college and wanted to try it herself. Her father owned a large farm in New Jersey and she convinced him to lease some of his conventionally tilled land for her to try organic farming. He was unsure that it would work, but Jess has seemingly proved to him that organic farming can be productive enough to justify her gamble for the environment.

Jess Niederer, Founder of Chickadee Creek Organic Farm - Morgan Nelson, Photo

Jess Niederer, Founder of Chickadee Creek Organic Farm – Morgan Nelson, Photo

During our visit and work on the farm, Jess threw around enough chemistry words, numbers, and statics to make me feel like I was back in the first lecture of Chemistry 201 at Princeton during my freshman year (i.e. completely lost and switching my major to Politics). But despite my chemistry ineptitude, I learned a lot about organic farming during the Chickadee visit. The farm looked pretty ordinary–with rows and rows of food and lots of green growth. But the plots were in funny shapes that flowed with the land (in order to prevent soil erosion) and the ground around the veggies was covered in dry leaves. Jess explained that the farm uses leaves as compost to keep water and nutrients in the soil. This was just one among many practices and numbers that she listed off while describing how she keeps her organic farm productive, healthy and sustainable.

Jess employs 2 people to go to 6 farmer’s markets each week. When asked about how the farm survives the winter, she said that the organic farm sold at the markets every week except for one last year (51 of 52, no bad!). During the fall, Chickadee Creek Organic Farm produces enough potatoes to supply the markets until Spring. They are kept in a refrigerated storage facility, and kale and spinach are grown in a covered greenhouse during the winter months.

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Organic farming is more time and labor intensive than organic gardening due to the scale. However, my perception of the garden at Princeton has changed a lot by knowing more about organic farming. Our garden at Forbes is a smaller representation of ideals that are very important to help change the way we approach food production and care for the environment.

At the garden, we have a large compost that we use as soil and we face similar challenges (on a smaller scale) as Chickadee Creek farm. Although, we are sustained financially through the generosity of Forbes College and the Office of Sustainability, we sell all of our produce to the Real Food Co-op and Princeton Dining Services throughout the school year. The Princeton Garden Project is not a hobby or a place for crunchy, earth lovers with a lot of patience and time who want to get their hands dirty. It is a wonderful way of thinking and living. It is a place to practice and perfect creating a sustainable ecosystem for plants to grow and humans to eat. Doing that requires a lot of manual labor, sure, but more than that, it also demands commitment and brainpower.

Which leads me to realize the importance of understanding the final two terms that I previously listed: Compost and Recycling–what do they mean and what do they mean in my community?

Compost- 

Composting is a practice in which organic materials decompose to create soil. The soil made from composting can be used for gardening, farming, and other industrial practices. Compost can be made from grass clippings, leaves, food scraps, yard debris, and pizza boxes (what?! yeah.).

So compost makes decent soil… (although it is not rich enough on its own to make most things grow and requires natural fertilizer like animal manure) …why should I care?

Composting is important not because of what it makes, but rather what it prevents. When food and other organic materials are thrown in the garbage, they end up in landfills. There, the materials break down in an anaerobic environment. This process releases methane gas which, as i’m sure you all know, is bad for the atmosphere and causes global climate change. Composting also prevents the synthetic fertilizer problems that I discussed earlier by providing an abundant alternative to environmentally harmful practices.

Composting in Princeton-

While I was researching recycling in Princeton, I discovered Princeton’s compost program! For 65 dollars a year, the Princeton municipality provides households with a garbage can that is solely for organic material. It is picked up every week on the curbside of your house and taken to Princeton’s compost.

Princeton Curbside Organics

As students at Princeton, most of you won’t be able to take advantage of this program. However, I am living off campus next year and plan to take part in the city’s composting plan. I encourage anyone else who will be off campus to do the same. Additionally, I know that Terrace Club has a composting system but I am unsure about the other clubs’ organic material disposal. It would be really cool if all of the clubs composted. If both of these things are out of your control, I encourage you to look into composting programs in your hometown or if you have the space, make your own!

Recycling- 

Recycling at Princeton University is easy. Almost too easy. As Princeton students, we are all provided with blue cans in our dorm rooms for recycling. Yet, a lot of people are either confused about what can be recycled (me) or too lazy to recycle (me too, sometimes). Over the years, I have seen a number of blue cans with food containers and other garbage that cannot be recycled. More often, I have seen garbage cans filled with bottles and cans that can be recycled. I think a lot of people have been referencing an elementary school, rudimentary education about what can/cannot be recycled in order to sort their garbage. Like most other things in your life right now, it is important to update the information you have on reusable materials to a more complex, mature, adult understanding of the material.

Check out the simple guidelines the Office of Sustainability gives for your blue bins:

Princeton University Recycling

At Princeton, we are lucky to be able to recycle plastic bags (plastic privilege, amirite!?)! We should take advantage of it.

Another great resource for figuring out what you can recycle is the Princeton Municipal Curbside Recycling guidelines. However, note that the township does not recycle plastic bags.

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Since you are probably less busy over the summer than you are during the school year, you should really try to commit these lists to memory and share them with your friends and family.

And now, to make things more fun, I leave you with a rhyme:

Thanks for taking time to read this simple, earthy spiel.

It’s about more than the garden, but means a great deal.

-Morgan Nelson

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