A solar-powered trash compacting bin. One of Santa Clarita, Calif.'s solar-powered trash compacting bins. Photo courtesy of Mark Patti/City of Santa Clarita.

Being green isn’t always easy, particularly for a city with limited resources to spend on environmental programs. But Santa Clarita, Calif., has found an affordable way to help reduce its carbon footprint — solar-powered, self-compacting trash bins.

Thirty-four of the trash and recycling units are now located in parks and various public spaces throughout Santa Clarita, giving citizens a simple way to contribute to the city’s environmental health. In addition, instead of making daily trips to empty the containers, city employees now monitor their capacity remotely with a mobile app, improving workflow efficiency.

If a bin appears green on the application, it means there’s plenty of space left for more bottles and cans. If it appears yellow, the bin is starting to get full and will require attention soon. If the container is marked red, there is less than 10 percent capacity left and should be emptied.

“Normally when park staff would go out to a site, they would have to check every single container in the park,” said Mark Patti, project development coordinator with Santa Clarita. “With the solar containers … they are being checked once or twice a week.”

Designed by Big Belly Solar, the units were installed over a 10-day period earlier this year. Thirty of the bins are strictly for recyclable materials, while the other four compactors are dual-purpose, featuring bins for both regular trash and recyclables. The project cost $120,000, which was paid for by a state grant from the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).

Santa Clarity isn't the first to adopt this solar compactor technology. In the last few years, a number of other cities have successfully deployed the same  including Philadelphia, Boston, and Pasadena, Calif., among others.

And it was the money and time the containers saved Philadelphia that put the technology on Patti's radar, he said. Prior to the Big Belly Solar compactors being installed, Santa Clarita only had a few 55-gallon containers in its parks to collect recyclables. Those were getting scavenged, however, so the city wasn’t able to judge how much patrons used them.

With the new technology in place, however, Santa Clarita has seen a significant amount of recyclable materials being collected. As one of the conditions of receiving the state grant, the city is required to monitor the amount of beverage containers being recycled. In the first five months, it has collected 2.5 tons of material it wasn't capturing before.

The city has partnered with a nonprofit group called the LA Conservation Corps to obtain further recycling statistics. After city staff empties the Big Belly containers, the LA Conservation Corps takes and centralizes all the recyclables, divides them up and gives the city quarterly metrics on the amount of glass, aluminum and plastic that has been collected per pound.

“We’ve actually had to double our own dumpster capacity at Central Park where we store all the recyclables that are collected from these Big Belly units because more and more people are taking note of the containers,” Patti said. “If that trend were to continue, we’d definitely consider putting more containers in, because it’s clearly saving our staff time.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.