I came upon an interesting contraption on the exhibit floor at Waste Expo this week: a solar-powered trash compactor. It’s the brainchild of Needham, Mass.-based Big Belly Solar and uses a 30-watt solar panel that charges a battery that in turn compacts trash as it accumulates inside the bin. Waste Management recently partnered with Big Belly to distribute the bins in the places it operates in North America, and they are already being used by many schools, parks departments and zoos around the country – in fact Philadelphia is installing 500 of the compactors on its streets as part of its Greenworks project.
The bin contains an electronic eye that spans the top of the 32-gallon barrel inside the unit. Once enough material accumulates to block the beam, it triggers the compactor to engage, using 1250 pounds of force to ram the trash into the barrel. In total, the barrel can hold roughly 150 gallons of compacted waste. Also, the unit contains a small display that shows when the barrel is nearly full and when it is completely full. A wireless link to the municipality allows dispatchers to send trucks to the cans only when they are full.
The benefits of compacting trash
Compacting the trash means the bins need to be emptied less frequently than standard bins – a lot less frequently. Big Belly estimates that four out of five pick-ups can be eliminated, and this equals an 80 percent fuel reduction for the local garbage truck fleet. And since garbage trucks are such major gas hogs, the compactor can operate for eight years on the same amount of energy that a truck burns in one mile, according to Big Belly. Yikes.
What this all means for the parties that buy these containers (they cost a few thousand bucks each) is a return on their investment should come in less than 18 months.
In places such as parks and beaches, where conventional bins often overflow and garbage spews out, this compactor could really go a long way toward reducing litter. While I don’t think litter in itself is always a bad thing – it has some awareness-raising value – it can easily translate into serious environmental degradation once sea birds and other animals consume it and it winds up in our rivers and streams (hello, great eastern garbage patch) not to mention drawing and habituating wildlife into our fast food nation.
But think about it. When you’re at the park or the beach, or even when you’re walking down a Manhattan street, what are you mostly likely going to place in this trash compactor? A paper bag. A plastic, or glass, or aluminum drink container. So what happens when 150 gallons of mostly recyclable waste gets compacted and shipped to the local landfill? Isn’t a great amount of reusable, energy-packed material being dumped?
In most cases, yes, it is. (Some cities, where economic drivers permit, use material separation technologies to pull recyclables out of the trash stream.) But increasing pedestrian recycling is a matter of building up the expensive and energy-consuming infrastructure needed to collect and efficiently recycle those materials – and there are many parts of the country that lack this infrastructure.
Fortunately, Big Belly makes companion bins for collecting (but not compacting, which would be problematic for a number of reasons) bottles, cans and paper. Philadelphia is deploying 210 of these recycling containers (adjacent to a portion of the 500 compactors it is setting out). In some spots on the Stanford University campus, where the greatest number of recyclables are generated, one Big Belly compactor is used for every two recycling bins.