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

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the company changed its name to BigBelly Solar, reflecting the containers’ large appetites for trash.

Sales tripled in 2006, tripled again in 2007, and have doubled this year, Kennelly says. The company raised a small amount of venture funding from the Brookline, MA-based Massachusetts Green Energy Fund, but expects revenue from product sales to carry it the rest of the way to profitability, he says. Poss now leads the company from its offices in Seattle, where he teaches entrepreneurship at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

BigBelly did have one big advantage over many of its brethren in the energy and cleantech spaces: it didn’t have to struggle to develop an untested energy source or convince customers to invest in a solution that might only pay off in the distant future. “We haven’t invented a new solar cell or anything,” says Kennelly. “It’s just taking two tried-and-true ideas—trash compaction and solar cells—and putting them together in an innovative way that saves customers money.”

But that didn’t spare BigBelly from having to solve some engineering problems. “The key to making a solar powered trash compactor work was that it had to be extremely energy-efficient,” says Kennelly. “Most trash receptacles don’t get a lot of direct sunlight—they are in the shade or alongside buildings. So we have to make it efficient enough to work just with ambient daylight, even though it has to be on 24 hours a day, continually monitoring so that it knows when it has to compact and can tell you when it’s full. Making that work even in Vancouver, Chicago, Boston, Montreal and other northern cities, where the winter days are cold and short, has been the real breakthrough.”

BigBelly Web Interface ScreenshotThe BigBelly requires minimal maintenance—its lead-acid battery, the same type used in motorized wheelchairs, needs to be replaced and recycled every four years for $40. The solar panel, which is sealed under a curved plastic shield designed to shed snow and rain, is guaranteed to work for at least 20 years. The motor in the trash compactor is designed to operate continuously for five straight years—but runs, in practice, for only 15 minutes a day. “The only issues we’ve had have been buses running into them,” says Kennelly. “They’re made of metal, so they will crush.”

More and more of the devices—which are child-proof as well as rat-, seagull-, and raccoon-proof, thanks to a rotating bin door makes it impossible to reach inside the receptacle—are popping up around Boston and other cities. The Kraft Group recently bought 15 of the units for Patriot Place, the outdoor mall adjacent to Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium.

The Patriot Place units actually have two compactors side-by-side—one for trash and the other for recyclable materials like soda cans and water bottles. “We’re really excited about the double-bin kiosks,” says Kennelly. “Recycling half of the trash further reduces how often you have to come by and empty the cans.”

Kennelly thinks BigBelly is well-positioned to grow, even during the downturn. “It’s a very good time” to be in the cleantech entrepreneurship space, he says. “Over the last few years there has been growing interest in the climate change issue; it has become more accepted that we need to do something to reduce emissions. Also, people have now started to expand their recycling programs in both private and public spaces.”

Double-wide BigBelly with Bottle CompactorAnd even with gas and diesel prices down from their highs earlier this year, Kennelly says, “people know that we have to find more cost-effective technologies to provide the kinds of goods and services we want, from transportation to sanitation, housing, lighting, and heating. They don’t say ‘Oh, they’re a bunch of tree huggers’ anymore. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the ability to do business in a way that uses all of our resources efficiently.”

So the next time you see a BigBelly, feel free to feed it—you’ll be preventing litter, saving your city money, and sparing the atmosphere, all at the same time.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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