Thursday, September 10, 2009

A greener, cheaper way to deal with garbage

By Daniel Gross - from Slate Magazine.
Early this decade, [BigBelly] founder Jim Poss, who had worked in the solar and electric-vehicle fields, was struck by the number of overflowing garbage cans he saw and the huge inefficiencies he detected in the carting business. Garbage cans are filled mostly with air and the trucks are expensive to operate—about $100 per hour, all costs considered. 'I figured there's a lot of inefficiency there. If you compact trash on site, you can make trucks and the people running them more effective.' Instead of spending money driving trucks around—burning gas and spewing carbon dioxide into the ozone—we'd all be better served spending the same money on efficiency-producing compactors. Especially if those compactors keep streets clean by trapping garbage inside them and can be powered by a free source of clean energy: the sun.

Poss started the company while getting his MBA at Babson College. A solar panel on the top of the container charges a battery, and when volume reaches a certain level, it starts compacting with 1,200 pounds of force, providing a 5-to-1 reduction in volume. 'On a busy day, it'll run for 15 minutes,' says Poss. Since the compactor fills up more slowly than a garbage can, it doesn't need to be emptied as often. Which makes it a potential money-saver when used in remote areas—like ski resorts and state parks—or in urban areas where volumes of trash require frequent pickups. Funded by angel investors at first, Poss has raised about $10 million in capital. He contracted with a firm in Vermont to manufacture the BigBelly and sold his first machine to Vail Resorts in early 2004.

Although it is made in America, BigBelly is reminiscent of a futuristic Japanese robot. Flashing lights indicate when it is full and needs to be emptied. Many are wireless-enabled, which effectively turns them into Twitterers—they transmit brief text messages to a centralized Web site to let owners know when compactors are full. Like many smart green products, they're not cheap—and they're much more expensive than the dumb product they're hoping to dislodge. It costs about $80 a month to lease a BigBelly, or from $3,000 to $3,900 to purchase one, though those buying in bulk get a discount.

As a rule of thumb, Poss says, if the installation of a BigBelly can save an hour of collection time per month on a garbage can, it pays off relatively quickly. "In a city that collects once per day, or in a park system where there's travel time of 10 to 20 minutes to reach a garbage can and they collect three times per week," it pays for itself in about three to four years. For a large-scale user who deploys them in a concentrated area, the savings can be greater. Earlier this year, Philadelphia leased 500 BigBellys and placed them downtown. In areas where the BigBelly operates, the city picks up the trash five times per week instead of 17. Poss says the city is saving $800,000 a year in labor and fuel costs and will save $12 million over the products' 10-year lifespan—without any reduction in service. Philadelphia has redeployed workers from collecting trash to recycling initiatives. "It's not a solution for every trash can in the world, but it is one for millions of trash cans in the U.S.," says Poss.

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