The trash cans are solar powered because they don’t just collect trash, they compact it. That allows each receptacle to hold about five times more waste than a non-compactor of the same size.
How Solar Powered Trash Cans Might Mean Major Savings for Cities
Emily Folk | Conservation Folks
There are solar panels for just about everything today. You can even buy solar powered sunglasses that can help charge your phone. It’s a bit harder to imagine a reason to have solar powered trash cans though. After all, they’re just containers that don’t do anything, so why would they need power?
In fact, just because trash cans don’t do anything doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. Public trash cans on the pickup route often aren’t full. The extra driving the truck does to pick up a partially full trash can isn’t exactly environmentally friendly, especially considering trash trucks average about two or three miles per gallon of diesel fuel. It’s easy to see that this is a necessary, but wasteful, routine.
Bringing in Solar
This routine leaves cities with a problem. They’re over-collecting trash, and wasting resources doing it. The solution comes in the form of solar-powered trash cans. The city currently trying them out, Philadelphia, is going through Bigbelly, a company that specializes in a variety of city-based solutions. Their trash cans are solar powered because they don’t just collect trash, they compact it. Bigbelly has been shipping solar powered trash cans since 2005 and has worked with each of the 50 states in North America and in 54 different countries.
In Philadelphia, Center City was collected as many as 17 times per week, but once they switched to Bigbelly, the stations were only collected 2.5 times per week on average. Jack Kutner, Executive Chairmain of Bigbelly, said, “Our compactors will increase capacity by about five times a same sized “traditional” bin. We found that when we added “smart connectivity” to the product the benefit expands to more than eight times.”
This compacting feature alone means that trash runs to each can need to be less frequent. That means cost savings, but it’s not the only thing the trash can does. When a Bigbelly compactor is full, it uses a wireless transmitter to alert the trash company that it needs to be emptied. They can then add them on to their route and only collect the cans on an as-needed basis.
The compactor offers a cost saving on its own, but they do take energy to run. Solar panels, in general, tend to have an energy efficiency of between 11-15 percent. That offers enormous savings when they’re used to reduce energy needs that already exist. The trash compactors, however, are a different story. They aren’t saving money directly by using solar power because the trash cans that existed before didn’t use any power. Instead, they offer cost savings by reducing fuel and waste while avoiding adding an additional charge.
Long-Term Solution or More Problems?
Theoretically, anyone can see the appeal of this solution. It saves gas, reduces waste and doesn’t use up extra energy. The problem comes in when you start to think about the long-term. How long have you had your trash cans? Probably a few years, at least, and they’ll probably last for a while yet. Most outdoor trash cans are virtually indestructible unless they get taken out in a car accident or purposefully hauled away. Bigbelly is not exception in this. If the city maintains their stations, bins can last 10 years or more, which can increase savings for cities.
That same reliability doesn’t hold true with trash compactors. They need work. They need maintenance. And eventually, they need to be replaced. Each replacement comes with a much higher price tag than a basic, empty bin. The city knows how to handle the potential thieving of regular trash cans. The Bigbelly ones, however, had a different thief problem. On their own, their too big and heavy to steal.
But they do have a handle that you have to use to open them. The handles quickly become gross, which is a problem, but they also get stolen. Without a handle to pull them open, they’re almost useless. Without being filled up with trash on a regular basis, no one comes to collect the garbage regularly, which leaves them useless for a much longer time than they would be if they were on a regular collection route.
The missing handles and maintenance issues that popped up resulted in a crew being necessary for them, an expense the city didn’t have before. To remedy this issue, Bigbelly has started shipping stations with foot pedals so that individuals don’t have to use their hands and to decrease risk of theft.
Each receptacle is not a fixed rate, depending on the wants and needs of a city. The low end is about $1400 purchase or $55 a month subscription. Stations with multiple components, like trash, recycling and extra features, can run over $4000 or $190 a month, which may be a hefty price tag for some cities.
And although they are supposed to alert the team when they need to be collected, that particular method doesn’t always work. This resulted in some of the busiest compactors still overflowing with trash, despite the city’s best efforts to rectify that. Replacing them and keeping them working properly is far from cheap. However, Kutner also brings up the cost-saving potential of Bigbelly bins, “When maintained, and when savings are realized, the stations will always ‘pay for themselves’ in any high volume environment.”
The result is that the verdict is still out on how this innovative take on trash will impact the city. Despite the issues some cities have had with the bins, if cities have the budget for and want to prioritize smart waste management, Bigbelly may be a wise investment that has enormous potential.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag
Emily Folk - Contributing Author
Emily is an environmental writer, covering topics in renewable energy and sustainability. She is also the editor of Conservation Folks.
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