City Trash Cans Go Solar—and Wireless—to Save Big Bucks on Garbage Trucks

12/9/08Follow @wroush

The only solar-powered trash compactor that most people could name is Wall-E, the fictional lovestruck robot from this summer’s Pixar movie. But in Boston, San Diego, Seattle, and more than a dozen other major cities, you can meet the real thing: the BigBelly Cordless Compaction System, a 200-gallon robotic trash container manufactured by Needham, MA-based BigBelly Solar and powered entirely by the sun.

Since introducing its invention on Earth Day in 2005, the startup has sold 2,000 of the units, which can collect up to five times as much trash as a regular can; several of them are on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End (where they make convenient stops on a dog walk—see photo below). And now the company is introducing its first big upgrade to the machines: a wireless system that tells waste-removal crews when the cans are full and need to be emptied.

The wireless feature feeds text messages about each can’s status into an online Google map that garbage truck drivers can use to plan the most efficient pickup route. It’s a key part of Big Belly’s original vision for the system, which is all about reducing the amount of time, money, and fuel that cities, campuses, and other institutions must devote to waste collection.

In the U.S., garbage trucks burn about a billion gallons of diesel fuel a year and get an appalling 3 miles per gallon, points out Richard Kennelly, vice president of the 18-person company, which also has offices in Seattle. Organizations that buy BigBelly containers, he says, can cut back on garbage truck trips by 80 percent, saving enough fuel to pay for the $3,000 to $3,900 units within a year or two.

BigBelly Container on Tremont Street, BostonAdding a wireless function solves one problem with the original BigBelly containers, which was that sanitation departments didn’t know exactly when to send trucks to empty them. “One of the advantages of having a self-powered robotic trash receptacle is that it’s intelligent—it knows when it’s full, by sensing how much resistance the compactor is getting from the trash as it becomes denser, and it communicates that information through LED lights on the top,” Kennelly says. “We always knew that having the BigBelly send that information wirelessly would bring a tremendous efficiency advantage. The time was eventually right to add that feature.”

But BigBelly makes trash containers, not software, so it outsourced development of the new wireless feature to Symphony Services, a Palo Alto, CA- and Waltham, MA-based contract software developer with engineering centers in India and China. Symphony built the software that the BigBelly units use to send text messages, as well as the Web-based system that shows the cans’ status on a map.

“We were pretty excited to work for these guys,” says Indranil Mukherjee, Symphony’s vice president of products. “It’s a green product with a really clear return-on-investment in gas savings. Now that these cans have a way of communicating back to a central server, any user who has access to that can figure out how full a particular trash can is, and when it needs emptying.”

BigBelly has been testing the wireless-enabled containers in Boston and Somerville, MA, and will be ready to offer the text-messaging system as an option on new cans starting in January. Kennelly says the company hasn’t decided how much to charge for the add-on, which goes by the name CLEAN, for Collection Logistics Efficiency And Networking. But the text-messaging charges and the Web-based interface will be included in the price, he says. The company can also retrofit existing BigBelly units with the wireless technology.

BigBelly, which started out under the name Seahorse Power, wasn’t actually founded in order to build trash containers. President and CEO James Poss, a Marblehead, MA native who trained in environmental science and geology at Duke University and got his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA, created the company in 2003 to explore solar-electric cars and wave energy machines. But the challenge with many solar-powered machines, be they cars or streetlights, is that they have do a lot of work with the energy they gather. A solar-powered trash compactor, by contrast, just sits there most of the time. “On a busy day, a compactor may do only 10 or 15 minutes of work,” says Kennelly. “The rest of the time it can harvest energy.”

So BigBelly became Seahorse’s first product, bootstrapped with a combination of family-and-friends investments and angel capital. Colorado’s Vail Resorts bought the first set of prototype containers in 2004. And once the device went on the market in 2005, it proved so popular on university campuses and in ecologically-minded cities like Boston, Seattle, Vancouver, and Montreal that the company changed its name to BigBelly Solar, reflecting the containers’ large appetites for trash.

Sales tripled in 2006, tripled again in 2007, and have doubled this year, Kennelly says. The company raised a small amount of venture funding from the Brookline, MA-based Massachusetts Green Energy Fund, but expects revenue from product sales to carry it the rest of the way to profitability, he says. Poss now leads the company from its offices in Seattle, where he teaches entrepreneurship at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

BigBelly did have one big advantage over many of its brethren in the energy and cleantech spaces: it didn’t have to struggle to develop an untested energy source or convince customers to invest in a solution that might only pay off in the distant future. “We haven’t invented a new solar cell or anything,” says Kennelly. “It’s just taking two tried-and-true ideas—trash compaction and solar cells—and putting them together in an innovative way that saves customers money.”

But that didn’t spare BigBelly from having to solve some engineering problems. “The key to making a solar powered trash compactor work was that it had to be extremely energy-efficient,” says Kennelly. “Most trash receptacles don’t get a lot of direct sunlight—they are in the shade or alongside buildings. So we have to make it efficient enough to work just with ambient daylight, even though it has to be on 24 hours a day, continually monitoring so that it knows when it has to compact and can tell you when it’s full. Making that work even in Vancouver, Chicago, Boston, Montreal and other northern cities, where the winter days are cold and short, has been the real breakthrough.”

BigBelly Web Interface ScreenshotThe BigBelly requires minimal maintenance—its lead-acid battery, the same type used in motorized wheelchairs, needs to be replaced and recycled every four years for $40. The solar panel, which is sealed under a curved plastic shield designed to shed snow and rain, is guaranteed to work for at least 20 years. The motor in the trash compactor is designed to operate continuously for five straight years—but runs, in practice, for only 15 minutes a day. “The only issues we’ve had have been buses running into them,” says Kennelly. “They’re made of metal, so they will crush.”

More and more of the devices—which are child-proof as well as rat-, seagull-, and raccoon-proof, thanks to a rotating bin door makes it impossible to reach inside the receptacle—are popping up around Boston and other cities. The Kraft Group recently bought 15 of the units for Patriot Place, the outdoor mall adjacent to Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium.

The Patriot Place units actually have two compactors side-by-side—one for trash and the other for recyclable materials like soda cans and water bottles. “We’re really excited about the double-bin kiosks,” says Kennelly. “Recycling half of the trash further reduces how often you have to come by and empty the cans.”

Kennelly thinks BigBelly is well-positioned to grow, even during the downturn. “It’s a very good time” to be in the cleantech entrepreneurship space, he says. “Over the last few years there has been growing interest in the climate change issue; it has become more accepted that we need to do something to reduce emissions. Also, people have now started to expand their recycling programs in both private and public spaces.”

Double-wide BigBelly with Bottle CompactorAnd even with gas and diesel prices down from their highs earlier this year, Kennelly says, “people know that we have to find more cost-effective technologies to provide the kinds of goods and services we want, from transportation to sanitation, housing, lighting, and heating. They don’t say ‘Oh, they’re a bunch of tree huggers’ anymore. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the ability to do business in a way that uses all of our resources efficiently.”

So the next time you see a BigBelly, feel free to feed it—you’ll be preventing litter, saving your city money, and sparing the atmosphere, all at the same time.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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