TECH: Clean Tech to Smash Trash

By and large, green gadgets have always seemed at bit questionable to me: will enough people buy them to make a noticeable difference? Will the energy that was cleanly harvested to power a cell phone ever justify the emissions from its manufacture? But here’s an innovation that packs a more powerful punch—a solar-powered trash compactor called BigBelly. Designed for city streets, the compactor collects and compresses trash and basically looks just like an ordinary trash bin. The compactor’s top is covered with 30 watts worth of solar cells, which charge a 12-volt battery that powers the compactor’s electrical motor. A built-in sensor reads when the bin is full and then neatly crushes its contents.

The cool part of this project is that the increased capacity of the bins means that they don’t need to be emptied as frequently. Each bin can hold about 150 gallons of trash, or 5 times as much as an ordinary trash can of the same volume. A city could easily implement a whole slew of them on certain streets and cut back on the number of runs along an entire garbage-collection route. This would enable savings on labor and fuel costs from garbage trucks, and of course on the emissions from those vehicles, as well.

Historically, one complaint about the bins has been that they looked too large and bulky, compared with ordinary garbage cans. CNet News reports that the bellies of the bins are now 25% slimmer than they once were. They’ve also protected the solar panels with a hard plastic to shield them from vandalism. 

According to BigBelly Solar, its bins can reduce the fuel and greenhouse-gas emissions associated with collection trips by 80%. The city of Chicago has installed 25 of the high-tech bins on beaches, in an effort to reduce overflowing trash. Chicago’s Park District officials have been attempting to rein in the seagulls that tend to gather around the piles of free food. Some scientists conjecture that the birds’ plentiful droppings contribute to increased levels of e. Coli on some beaches, which, at times, have led to intermittent beach closings. (Studies in South Florida and California have found that sand is often tainted with e. Coli at levels about 1,000 times higher than in the ocean, well above acceptable levels.) The city is hoping that the compactors may finally give their trash collectors and health inspectors a break.

The receptacles are sneaking into other places, too: Boston has several of them, as do a handful of colleges, amusement parks, and transportation terminals. Most recently, they’ve been included in a project to reinvent Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, which aims to modernize the ageing docks in an eco-friendly way.

BigBelly Solar claims that a bin can run on as much energy as it takes to brew one pot of coffee. Once the savings from fuel and labor are factored in, the bins—about $4,000 each, rather than $50 for a standard metal box, according to the Tribune—can pay for themselves in 1.5 years. An expensive transition, at first, but one whose positive impact ripples into a number of other urban issues.

By Sandra Upson