Solar Trash Cans Save City Millions

High-tech trash cans making Philly green by reducing litter and cutting down collections

Streetside solar-powered trash cans are saving Philadelphia a million dollars a year.

Called BigBelly Solar Compactors, the high-tech trash eaters hold five-times the amount of litter of a traditional trash can thanks to a built-in trash compactor. 

Philadelphia Streets Department spokeswoman Keisha McCarty-Skelton says the extra capacity has made all the difference.

“The collections have been reduced from 17 to three collections per week,” according to McCarty-Skelton.

McCarty-Skelton says the department saves around $800,000 a year in operational costs by using the BigBellys over traditional cans. Another $200,000 is saved in fuel and truck costs.

The compactor, sensors and a wireless card are powered by a large solar panel on the roof of the unit. When the trash reaches the height level of the sensor, the compactor activates. Those sensors also track the unit's fullness level and identify mechanical problems -- sending status updates wirelessly to the Streets Department.

“Throughout the day, text messages are sent by each BigBelly to a website that monitors the status of each unit,” she said. “Using data from the website, the city can identify which units require collection each day and if mechanical or software problems are detected, so that repairs can be scheduled.”

Philadelphia began replacing traditional, 55-gallon open-air trash in 2009. Since then, 900 BigBelly units have been installed across the city. More than 400 of those have a recycling can attachment for reusable trash.

“In corridors where BigBelly units were installed, all litter baskets were removed which significantly improved operational efficiencies,” McCarty-Skelton said.

The units have also reduced litter – both intended and unintended. McCarty-Skelton says on a windy day, litter would blow out of a traditional trash and wind up all over the street. Since the BigBelly units are enclosed, the trash is contained.

“Public feedback has been very positive,” she said. “For example, a number of community groups have raised funds on their own to purchase additional units to expand the network where there is no coverage of BigBelly units or litter baskets.”

Each BigBelly costs $3,800 and the recycling attachment is $800. Get a look at how they work on the inside with this video.

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