Saturday, March 21, 2009

Big-Bellied, Text-Messaging Trash Cans?

Here's an interesting example of using technology to address environmental issues:

Big-Bellied, Text-Messaging Trash Cans?

By Laura Shin [From the NYT’s greeninc blog]

BigBelly The solar-powered, self-compacting BigBelly trash can handle up to 180 gallons of refuse. Soon, it will send a message to haulers when it’s full.
In the ongoing struggle against climate change, enter the texting trash can.

This month, Somerville, Mass., will install text-messaging technology in about 50 public trash cans located in high-pedestrian and far-flung areas. The idea is that the cans, made by BigBelly Solar, will transmit text messages to a central database, notifying haulers that they are full and allowing town managers to maximize collection efficiency.

Somerville has about 50 BigBelly cans – a handful purchased in early 2007 and the rest last April. Like the robotic trash collector popularized in Pixar’s film “Wall-E,” BigBelly units compact trash as it is deposited, and obtain the energy to do so from the sun — via a photovoltaic panel on top.

BigBelly says its smart cans — which cost over $3,000 a pop — each hold 180 gallons of trash, compared to 30 gallons for a normal can. And by compacting trash themselves, they can reduce garbage collection trips by 80 percent.
Somerville will now be the first to add the text-messaging feature.

Michael Lambert, the chief of staff to Somerville’s mayor, Joseph Curtatone, says the technology will allow the barrel to radio a signal to city hall, alerting a customer service representative that it’s full.

“So we don’t have to check it anymore,” Mr. Lambert said. “We just have to go whenever needed.”

Whatever savings are derived from the move will come atop those already expected from the BigBelly units. The city recently decided to “saturate” its most highly trafficked area, Davis Square, near Tufts University, with six BigBellies.

“We had been visiting that area three times a day to empty the traditional bins, and now we go there twice a week,” Mr. Lambert said. The city has saved on gas, vehicle maintenance and labor costs, Mr. Lambert reported, and the cans have helped reduce traffic in an already congested area.

From just the six cans at David Square, Mr. Lambert said, the city expects savings of $14,000 annually.

Estimates vary, but one oft-quoted statistic puts the number of garbage trucks in the United States at over 130,000, collectively burning over 1 billion gallons of diesel fuel each year. Reducing the number of trips they make could provide significant fuel savings, as well as reduce emissions.

But not everyone is keen on the BigBellies.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed using $21.8 million of stimulus package funds to put thousands of BigBelly units in all of the state’s parks. “It’s projects like these that make people suspicious of the entire federal stimulus project,” State Representative Vinny M. DeMacedo, a Republican, told The Boston Herald late last month. “They might be nice, but how are they creating jobs?”

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