The BigBelly Solar: Do you have one of these in your hometown? Or 500 of them like the city of Philadelphia? If you haven’t seen them before, this is the solar powered trash compactor that gobbles 5 times its size in trash. I love these things: sleek, crisp, more or less indestructible. Although I’m not much of a sports fan, I’m pretty sure they all survived when the Phillies won the World Series, and I guess when they lost, too. I think the tops are made of a bulletproof glass of sorts…but why would I hit one of these things?
The container on the inside is made of LDPE, or #4 plastic, known to most people as being responsible for plastic bags, the nation’s tumbleweed. It’s nice to see LDPE used in this application. Those funny city government people like these cans because they are designed to save on labor costs and gas, since they’re hooked up to a grid so we know exactly when they’re full. Pretty brilliant. The claim is that Philly will save $13M over ten years by implementing these, representing a 70% decrease in collection cost, and I believe it. Yes people, it costs several million dollars a year to collect your waste.
I’ve been taking a lot of photos of BigBelly cans in action around the city, just to watch how they degrade over time. They were absolutely immaculate for longer than I ever imagined (a month?), then out of nowhere the taggers started writing on them. As much as I love graffiti, I was pretty bummed to see these cans scribbled on. Then the obnoxious band name/company name bumper stickers started making their way onto them. Nonetheless, I think it’s hard to make them look bad.
My all-time favorite Big Belly I’ve ever seen (which of course I don’t have a picture of, damn it) was completely covered in vomit. Not just a sprinkling on the side of the thing, either…but all over the handle! Hilarious. Which leads to my only critique of them: How many people like to touch a public surface connected to waste disposal? Touching a filthy handle doesn’t bother me, but most people don’t want to grab that nasty thing. Come on Big Belly designers, the solution is right in front of you, think just a little bit harder here…or pay me to design it. On top of that, having to use physical effort to pull open the chute doesn’t fly. People are used to taking basketball shots with their trash, so this is serious culture shock. So where does a lot of trash end up? You guessed it, in the open recycling container next to it.
A friend called me up recently and mentioned he saw one of these being emptied, and said that both the recycling and the compacted trash went in the same garbage truck. Oh, the phone calls I get sometimes. I’m pretty certain that all of this waste goes to our city’s single stream facility. Plus, the compacted trash isn’t an unmovable solid brick, either…it’s still perfectly sortable by a bunch of lasers, gusts of air and magnets. Or some dudes standing at a conveyor belt. I guess it’s time to take a bike ride and follow one of these trucks to see where it ends up.
So why make the end user separate the waste if it’s going to be unsorted and resorted again? Clearly it’s to please the public, and rightfully so. For everyone that doesn’t care to think about what happens to their waste, there’s a pile of people that are concerned about their recycling efforts. Maybe it’s because they really care, or it’s because the city tickets people that don’t sort their recyclables properly. I think sorting is a good thing, unnecessary or not, to get people in the mindset of identifying what’s in their hand and what needs to happen to it.
Now finally, what I wanted to write this article about in the first place: I used this Big Belly picture because the pizza box is in the wrong spot, but obviously the person didn’t feel like ripping the box into pieces to fit in the recycling slot. I decided to call the single stream facility here with some questions and I received some pretty sweet answers. “Several people have asked me if pizza boxes are recyclable…” “They are.” “I was curious how badly weather affects the quality of the recycled material. Between rain, snow, humidity or whatever, our waste is pretty beat up, right?” The answer: “It’s good.”
So there you have it. You heard it here first.
UPDATE: Then just after I wrote this, the City of Philadelphia gets exposed on their BigBelly procurement practices… Come on, people!