Philly rolls out solar-powered trash cans downtown

ByABC News
July 23, 2009, 4:38 PM

PHILADELPHIA -- Is it any surprise that a city known for its love of cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and cannolis would embrace a solar-powered trash compactor called a BigBelly?

Philadelphia has replaced 700 public trash receptacles downtown with 500 of the high-tech compactors, which use solar energy to condense trash cutting collection trips by 75%.

Facing a $1.4 billion, five-year budget deficit, the city estimates it will save $875,000 a year with the compactors, bought with state grant money. Cities from Vienna to Boston to Vancouver have tried the devices in smaller numbers; Philadelphia put them along four collection routes downtown.

Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson says the new compactors, the last of which was installed this month, need to be emptied about five times a week vs. 19 times for a regular trash bin. The change frees up 25 streets department employees, who are now filling vacancies on trucks that collect household recycling.

"We now can go all day," Tolson said of the 32-gallon compactors, which can hold 150 to 200 gallons of trash.

The devices are being tried by governments and others in 40 states and 20 countries, but no other group is trying an approach as comprehensive as Philadelphia, says Richard Kennelly, vice president of marketing for BigBelly Solar, based in Needham, Mass.

The BigBelly is powered by light, but it does not need direct light, Kennelly said. When trash gets to the top of the bin, it breaks an electronic beam that triggers a motor that pushes it down. As trash gets more densely packed, the machine senses the resistance and changes a light on the front of the bin from green to yellow.

In Philadelphia, the cans also have a wireless monitoring system that notifies the city when they're full. In addition, the city is introducing curbside recycling containers next to many of the compactors.

Boston first got the solar-powered compactors in 2006 and now has 160, using them everywhere from historic Faneuil Hall to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.