Trashcan of the FutureNovember 20, 2009
Solar Trash Compactors Save Time and Money, Gobble Up Emissions
Here's a hellish scenario you've probably never thought about before: it's rush hour on a hot summer day and your waste crew has to fight their way through idling traffic to collect stinky garbage from all of the trashcans the grid-locked downtown of a major city. It's a trash collector's nightmare as well as an environmentalist's.
It all comes down to a reality that most of us have simply never had to wrap our brains around: Collecting society's garbage is an incredibly complicated, tedious, and fuel-intensive process. Well, thanks to a smarter, solar-powered and even Internet-savvy type of trashcan, the future of garbage collection may have a much lighter footprint.
The term "trashcan" really doesn't do the WM Solar-Powered Compactor justice. For starters, these "trash compactors" can also be used as recycling stations. Secondly, the WM Solar-Powered Compactor is an advanced garbage device from beyond the era of simple trashcans. Richard Kennelly, VP of marketing for BigBelly Solar (the company whose technology powers the WM Solar-Powered Compactors), refers to it casually as a "smart-can" and this self-contained, self-powered unit can save cities big money, man-hours, and perhaps most importantly carbon emissions.
How the Waste Management Solar-Powered Compactor Works
Imagine a normal-sized trash or recycling barrel that can somehow magically fit five times the material that a conventional barrel can. Now imagine this barrel equipped with sensors that can alert a city's garbage collectors via an SMS text message when the barrel is full and needs to be picked up — and it does all of this using free, abundant energy provided by the sun.
That's a pretty fair description of Waste Management's Solar-Powered Compactor or "smart-can." The Waste Management smart-can basically works like this: sensors inside the can detect when the barrel needs to run a compaction cycle; a cycle powered by a battery inside the unit, which is charged by a solar panel on top. Then, once the unit is completely full, a signal is sent to the customer that a pick-up is needed.
Okay, but what about when it's cloudy? Don't these smart cans ever require energy from the grid to smash down all of that garbage? According to Kennelly, "It's 100% solar powered, and doesn't need any direct sunlight–it loves indirect sunlight. The solar compactor uses about as much energy–2kWh–of energy-in the course of a year as a small Christmas light."
What are the Benefits for the Environment?
If you're like me, you're probably wondering just exactly what environmental benefits these smart-cans have to offer. Sure, slapping solar panels on random objects is good for appearances, but is there really any need for a robotic trashcan in the first place?
According to Randy Whitaker, Managing Director for WM's Organic Growth Division, "The WM Solar-Powered Compactor actually can reduce the number of trips to empty that waste basket by up to 80%." Not only does the smart-can lower the emissions by cutting down on the number of trips garbage trucks have to take, the wireless communication capability of these cans allow Waste Management collectors to optimize their routes in real-time, cutting out all unnecessary stops.
To put the cherry on top, the savings realized through these smart-cans in man-hours and fuel can then be used to beef up municipal recycling efforts. If a city is able to save resources by using the WM smart-can, says Whitaker, "The city will be able to re-deploy resources that were otherwise being used to empty wire waste bins." In the example of at least one real-world case study in Philadelphia, the City expects to beef up its emphasis on the 3 R's while still saving taxpayers some serious change. They just rolled out 500 of the solar compactors this summer, and the City has built $875,000 of savings into its Streets Department budget for the current fiscal year.
Solar-Powered Compactors in Action
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Waste Management's new smart-can is that it's already a proven commodity. If you live or work in downtown Philadelphia, then you've possibly already seen one of these machines in action, since 500 solar compactors with 210 companion recycling units have been gobbling garbage in Center City since May. Philadelphia city leaders had the foresight to take advantage of BigBelly Solar's technology, and it has paid off big time, both financially and environmentally.
Says Kennelly, "There were 700 litter baskets in Center City. They replaced all baskets with 500 solar compactors and 210 recyclers. Previously they had to send out three crews on 17 trips a week. Now they only have to make five trips a week with one crew. That gives the city more than $850K a year in savings." Kennelly adds, "They financed the project over three years, so the city could actually pay for the equipment out of the savings." Philly was able to use a state recycling grant to pay for the solar compactors, so all of the cost savings go directly to help balance the city's budget.
It's also important to point out here that the solar technology is completely effective in Philadelphia, not a sun-drenched climate like Phoenix. That's a testament not only to the efficiency of using the smart-cans, but also to the enormous expense of conducting business as usual, something Waste Management is very well aware of.
What's the Biggest Challenge in Getting Cities to Go With WM Solar Compactors?
So, what's standing in the way of this new technology coming to every urban center in the country? Mainly, it's a simple matter of perception. Says Kennelly, "The biggest challenge is that this is a new way to collect garbage. It's difficult getting people to realize that it's actually cheaper to buy solar-powered compactors than to do business as usual."
Echoing the same sentiment, WM's Randy Whitaker said this of the challenges in store for the WM Solar-Powered Compactor, "We try to make sure that the customer understands that it is not just a cool waste bin that is run off of renewable energy, but actually a solution to some real problems."
In order to give the adoption process a boost, Waste Management has teamed up to become the exclusive waste and environmental services company distributor of BigBelly Solar's compactors in North America. With WM putting its vast resources behind the solar compactor, all sorts of new decision-makers are getting to preview the benefits of these off-the-grid waste collection units.
Waste Management debuted their smart-can at this year's US Conference of Mayors in Providence, Rhode Island, where it was a big hit. Yet another proving ground/opportunity for patrons to get acquainted with the WM Solar-Powered Compactor is at Patriot Place, where 15 of the recycling stations are deployed throughout the shopping center adjacent to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA. There, you'll get the chance to take one of these bad boys for a test drive. You may want to take note, however, that as part of their energy-saving technology, these smart-cans don't go into compaction mode every time you throw in a piece of trash only when they're full.
"Our WM Solar-Powered Compactors are an important piece of Patriot Place's overall sustainability and recycling initiatives," said Brian Earley, general manager of Patriot Place. "In addition to promoting recycling and reducing our waste volume and energy consumption, we have realized significant operational efficiencies and cost savings for waste removal."
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