NY’s Solar-Powered, Litter-Compacting Trash Can

Until this week, the corner of Chambers and Church Streets in New York has been home to the city’s latest attempt to control waste: the BigBelly compacting trash can. Donated for use on a trial basis by its manufacturer, the Seahorse Power Company, the hi-tech can—which Seahorse touts as having the potential to greatly reduce both pollution and the number of needed pick-ups—has had some success in the city, although not without a few hitches.

The large, boxy receptacles are operated by solar energy, which is collected and stored by panels connected to a long-life battery. Garbage is deposited into the can’s pull-down chute, which is designed to keep rodents and odors at bay. Once the trash inside the bin attains a certain volume, a sensor automatically triggers a block compactor, which condenses the garbage. Up to 300 gallons of waste—or four-to-ten times the amount held by the average bin—can be housed in the BigBelly at a time. As a result, up to 75% less collection trips are needed by sanitation workers and their heavily polluting diesel trucks.

But the BigBelly receptacle doesn’t come cheap. Compared to the $100 price tag for each of the 25,000 open, unlined cans that now occupy New York’s streets, the BigBelly costs $4,500 per unit—a figure that the city’s Department of Sanitation finds financially challenging. But Richard Kennelly, VP of Sales and Marketing at Seahorse Power Company, feels confident that this month, at the end of New York’s trial run with the cans, the city will be convinced of their value. After all, the company says its clients often see the cost of the receptacles recouped within 12 months, driven by the savings in fuel costs and labor.

New York’s Department of Sanitation, however, still remains skeptical. Kathy Dawkins, spokesperson for the Department, says that while the receptacle may function well at an amusement park, where most of the waste is food-product-related, the can doesn’t seem appropriate for a large, metropolitan city. “We’ve had many objects placed alongside it—umbrellas, boxes, large items that can’t fit into the chute—making the sidewalk a dumping ground,” she says.

Seahorse Power’s Kennelly agrees there are problems with the types of waste people generate, but doesn’t believe BigBelly should be held accountable for them. “People throw away large and amazing things, often leaving them in the street, and that can’t be changed by any can,” he says. “On the other hand, the BigBelly does solve the problem of cans overflowing, causing trash to blow away. By making sure there’s room for the kind of trash generated most often, like wrappers, food, and cups, it absolutely keeps the streets cleaner.”

Another concern about the BigBelly speaks more to our tendency towards habit than a design flaw. “People are used to a certain look to a basket, and can’t always recognize this one,” Dawkins says. “They don’t know what it is.” The Seahorse team is working to address this issue. “We are starting to put pictorial stickers on the baskets, depicting a figure dumping trash into the can,” Kennelly says. “Going forward, we would like to see multilingual signs instructing people to dispose of their litter.”

That said, not everyone is confounded by the can’s modern appearance. “The bins are very full,” Kennelly continues, “so people are definitely getting the idea. I think it will catch on, as it did when they first put automated machines in subways or at post offices. Remember when ATMs were new? It’s not that different.”

One possible way to speed up the BigBelly’s rate of acceptance could be through private ownership of the cans. In New York, certain businesses and business districts already “adopt” trash cans, assuming responsibility for emptying and maintaining them; they view it as a better option than letting piles of loose trash sit on the street. If these same businesses chose to purchase a BigBelly, their employees’ sanitation work would be reduced—and the public would be presented with cleaner, less congested streets.

Despite the city’s complaints about the BigBelly, the receptacle clearly has piqued interest; at the city’s request, the can’s original 30-day trial has just been extended by two weeks. The BigBelly has been moved to 181st St. and Broadway, to a corner on which the Department of Sanitation has had numerous problems with overflow and illegal dumping. If the bin is successful in controlling these situations, residents of New York may be seeing the BigBelly in their neighborhoods after all.

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