Photo: BigBelly Solar Compactor. Photo courtesy of BigBelly.

As local governments seek any and every way to save money during this economic recession, Pasadena, Calif., found that spending extra money on new technologies can sometimes reap cost savings.

Along with local nonprofit Leadership Pasadena, the city participated in a pilot to deploy 12 solar-powered, self-compacting trash bins to city streets. "We discovered that they were very efficient and required very little maintenance," said Gabriel Silva, environmental programs manager for the city's Department of Public Works.

The specialized trash containers - called BigBelly Solar Compactors - can hold up to five times more trash than regular containers, according to the manufacturer, BigBelly Solar. Instead of connect to the power grid, the devices run off solar power.

Solar-Powered Expansion

Because less than 10 percent of the material collected during the pilot was recyclable - most of the trash was soiled papers from fast-food wrappers and drink containers - Silva said the city is using the containers solely for trash disposal.

Based on the pilot's success, the City Council recently approved the purchase of 40 additional containers at a cost of nearly $147,000 - about $3,700 each. By comparison, Silva said standard steel garbage cans cost several hundred dollars apiece.

Despite the added upfront costs, Pasadena found the solar compactors cost-effective because they can be emptied weekly instead of daily, allowing the city to redirect its labor force to other tasks. Since employees don't need to visit the containers as often for trash pickup, the city also has reduced the amount of fuel used. The city expects combined labor and fuel savings to reach $61,400 annually once all containers are deployed - about a three-year return on investment, Silva said.

To determine where to deploy the BigBellys, Pasadena conducted a survey of all trash cans throughout the city. "We identified all the containers that required daily emptying, and we're replacing those high-use trash containers with these more effective trash compactors," Silva said.

Trash Trends

Pasadena isn't the only city to enlist the high-tech trash bins. Deployments also have been made by: Boston; the Portland, Ore., Zoo; the Bergen County, N.J., Parks Department; and Arizona State University.

In April 2009, Philadelphia replaced 700 of its wire basket trash bins on city streets with 500 self-compacting containers, according to a report released in June 2009. And as part of its Philly Throws Green initiative, Philadelphia also distributed 210 single-stream recycling bins - which allow all types of recyclable, like paper, plastic and glass, to be collected in one container. Before adding the new receptacles, city workers made 17 trips per week to empty the 700 wire trash bins, which cost about $2.3 million annually. According to the report, the new receptacles require emptying five times a week at a cost of about $720,000 annually.

Elaine Rundle  |  Staff Writer