City Trash Cans Go Solar—and Wireless—to Save Big Bucks on Garbage Trucks

The only solar-powered trash compactor that most people could name is Wall-E, the fictional lovestruck robot from this summer’s Pixar movie. But in Boston, San Diego, Seattle, and more than a dozen other major cities, you can meet the real thing: the BigBelly Cordless Compaction System, a 200-gallon robotic trash container manufactured by Needham, MA-based BigBelly Solar and powered entirely by the sun.

Since introducing its invention on Earth Day in 2005, the startup has sold 2,000 of the units, which can collect up to five times as much trash as a regular can; several of them are on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End (where they make convenient stops on a dog walk—see photo below). And now the company is introducing its first big upgrade to the machines: a wireless system that tells waste-removal crews when the cans are full and need to be emptied.

The wireless feature feeds text messages about each can’s status into an online Google map that garbage truck drivers can use to plan the most efficient pickup route. It’s a key part of Big Belly’s original vision for the system, which is all about reducing the amount of time, money, and fuel that cities, campuses, and other institutions must devote to waste collection.

In the U.S., garbage trucks burn about a billion gallons of diesel fuel a year and get an appalling 3 miles per gallon, points out Richard Kennelly, vice president of the 18-person company, which also has offices in Seattle. Organizations that buy BigBelly containers, he says, can cut back on garbage truck trips by 80 percent, saving enough fuel to pay for the $3,000 to $3,900 units within a year or two.

BigBelly Container on Tremont Street, BostonAdding a wireless function solves one problem with the original BigBelly containers, which was that sanitation departments didn’t know exactly when to send trucks to empty them. “One of the advantages of having a self-powered robotic trash receptacle is that it’s intelligent—it knows when it’s full, by sensing how much resistance the compactor is getting from the trash as it becomes denser, and it communicates that information through LED lights on the top,” Kennelly says. “We always knew that having the BigBelly send that information wirelessly would bring a tremendous efficiency advantage. The time was eventually right to add that feature.”

But BigBelly makes trash containers, not software, so it outsourced development of the new wireless feature to Symphony Services, a Palo Alto, CA- and Waltham, MA-based contract software developer with engineering centers in India and China. Symphony built the software that the BigBelly units use to send text messages, as well as the Web-based system that shows the cans’ status on a map.

“We were pretty excited to work for these guys,” says Indranil Mukherjee, Symphony’s vice president of products. “It’s a green product with a really clear return-on-investment in gas savings. Now that these cans have a way of communicating back to a central server, any user who has access to that can figure out how full a particular trash can is, and when it needs emptying.”

BigBelly has been testing the wireless-enabled containers in Boston and Somerville, MA, and will be ready to offer the text-messaging system as an option on new cans starting in January. Kennelly says the company hasn’t decided how much to charge for the add-on, which goes by the name CLEAN, for Collection Logistics Efficiency And Networking. But the text-messaging charges and the Web-based interface will be included in the price, he says. The company can also retrofit existing BigBelly units with the wireless technology.

BigBelly, which started out under the name Seahorse Power, wasn’t actually founded in order to build trash containers. President and CEO James Poss, a Marblehead, MA native who trained in environmental science and geology at Duke University and got his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA, created the company in 2003 to explore solar-electric cars and wave energy machines. But the challenge with many solar-powered machines, be they cars or streetlights, is that they have do a lot of work with the energy they gather. A solar-powered trash compactor, by contrast, just sits there most of the time. “On a busy day, a compactor may do only 10 or 15 minutes of work,” says Kennelly. “The rest of the time it can harvest energy.”

So BigBelly became Seahorse’s first product, bootstrapped with a combination of family-and-friends investments and angel capital. Colorado’s Vail Resorts bought the first set of prototype containers in 2004. And once the device went on the market in 2005, it proved so popular on university campuses and in ecologically-minded cities like Boston, Seattle, Vancouver, and Montreal that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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