What The Hell Is A BigBelly Solar Compactor?
WARNING: This may veer away from cryptojournalism into the realm of pseudo-journalism. For all the cryptojournalism enthusiasts out there, my most sincere apologies. But when I smell something fishy, I’m likely to chirp, like Birdman aka Baby the #1 Stunna from Cash Money.
The title is not a rhetorical question. We’ll get to that in due time.
Over the last half year, the City of Albany has been rolling out a fleet of newfangled trash bins. That’s right, garbage cans. Big whoop, no big deal, right? C’mon folks, the six of y’alls keeping tabs on this page know that’s just hyperbole. A setup, as they say in the biz. BigBelly Solar, maker of The BigBelly Solar Compactor, who has signed an exclusive distribution deal with Waste Management, has been maximizing it’s profile amongst the nation’s mood to go green. They boast of the fiscal utility of these machines, while still hedging bets:
Increased capacity reduces collection trips and can cut operating costs, fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80%. Reduced collections yield deep cost efficiencies by freeing up valuable worker time, allowing managers to re-deploy staff to other important tasks, and reduce the costs and pollution of unnecessary vehicle trips.
One word particularly jumps out at me. Do you see it? Right there in the first sentence, it practically leaps out, cackling all the way to the bank. “Can” is a mighty big qualifier. That 80% number comes from the company, so you can bet that it is sterling. Sound as a pound. Pip pip, cheerio.
It appears to my eyes to be nothing more than Public Relations bluster. And as a friend once told me about politically correct people, “Man, it really cranks my knob when people are P.R. and everything.” In other words, hilarious. Honestly, though, when the company website and a supposed local blog share the same copy, neither can be taken seriously. This actually proves to be a problem. Shocker.
The Lark Street PR push talks about ‘dramatic cost savings’ as well as ‘reduce overflowing’ while pointing out the use of Federal funding from the Department of Energy, through an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant. Albanysustaunability.org highlights how the compactors encourage recycling in public spaces. Everything is peaches and gravy. There can be no downside to a federally funded program that helps people save the Earth, right?
Colleges, such as Boston University, are embracing the new technology. From pretentious Vail, Colorado to one of Downstate New York’s tertiary North Shore hot spots, Port Jefferson to meaty Chicago to, um, Duluth BigBelly compactors are beginning to become widespread. How much do they really cost? And do they really work?
First, the cost. Depends. Port Jeff was charged $5,500 per unit. Vail got theirs for between $3,000-3,900. Vague. Philadelphia, the vanguard of the solar trash can movement, claims they paid $3,700 apiece. And since these are the first generations of solar powered garbage collection, the verdict for cost savings and quality of life benefits is still out.
Do they work? To begin answering that question, we need to consider the first major American city to utilize BigBelly’s marquee product: Philadelphia. I could practically cut and paste the entire report from the Office of the Comptroller on the purchase and deployment of the trash bins. In a nutshell, no competitive pricing, hidden costs, lack of technical training for city staff and plenty of other detriments to this program. Do yourself a favor and read the report yourself. Illuminating to say the least.
But forget about that for now. I’m concerned with the state capital of New York, hub of the Capital District, Albany. Right in my neighborhood, there are a bakers dozen (11 trash compactors and 2 recycling units) very poorly dispersed in a two block radius. Obvious redundancy is something I would not expect built into a cutting edge system. Take a look at the photos below, you’ll see how poorly the layout of the BigBelly’s was conceived.
Three units within view of each other is a) rather dumb b) not an uncommon occurrence on this stretch of Madison Ave and c) wholly unnecessary for the pedestrian population in a city of under 100,000 residents (probably lower, considering student population). And guess what? It’s not even the worst of it.
Remember that PR rhetoric about cost efficiencies? You may want to get rid of the conventional trash bins. Now you just have two garbage cans, one really expensive piece of technology with à la carte pickup, the other just a regular old bin, on regular old pickup. I fail to see the savings if you drive by one receptacle to empty another, and vice versa. Note how much more effective that last sentence would be if there were a universally recognized sarcasm font. Computer programmers of the world, we need a sarcasm font! And a convenient backwards R on keypads, for the schmucks.
Since I have not found specific costs per unit for the 93 the city has, I’ve got to resort to rudimentary math. Based on the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website’s figure of $425,000, there would be $4,569.89 per unit. Using the $3,700 figure for Philadelphia as a per unit floor and the $5,500 amount for wee Port Jefferson a ceiling, that is not a terrible price. In theory. In practice, well, I can see with my own two eyes the whole venture is a boondoggle. Fast cash. However you want to construe it, at the end of the day it amounts to a leverage move by a global company.
Due to the glut of units clustered in some neighborhoods, it leaves large swaths of the city uncovered. They’re invisible north of Central Ave, so, uh, well I can’t reiterate this enough, where is the efficiency in that? I would like to note, there is a good chance not every compactor has been installed yet. But that would belie the fact these pricey garbage squashers may be of some benefit.
That is a crock of shit. I’ll give you BigBelly’s boast first:
As trash collects inside a BigBelly solar compactor, an internal “eye” senses when the bin is filling and automatically triggers a compaction cycle. As the compacted trash reaches the level where pick up is desirable after multiple compactions, a message is sent through the CLEAN notification system, essentially “calling home” to say “I’m full – time to empty me”. Without wasting trips down a street or to a curb for units that do not yet require pick up, crews have the ability to know exactly when BigBelly solar compactors are ready for pick up – or still have much more capacity.
Consider this a blast of facts on the ground. This is a picture taken last Thursday of a recycling unit
Guess the CLEAN system got a busy signal? This could be due to one of three things. The system does not work as advertised. Or the city workers were not trained in how to handle the equipment. Those two, or the city is just neglecting it’s new investment. Looking like a quorum of illiterate rubes in the process. In case you missed it.
Considering how strong the PR push feels for these things (namely in most of the information on BigBelly seems vetted through the company), I’m highly skeptical. The Philadelphia Comptroller report in particular raises plenty of concern. On the point of savings over time, the company offered a number for the city of 5 pickups per week. The city itself observed 10 pickups per week over a two-week period, greatly diminishing the perceived value.
A private company’s word proves to be false under the scrutiny of time and observation? Buh?!?? Not in my America. So what is a BigBelly Solar Compactor? A green solution to trash? A boondoggle? More trash? A hoax? I would say they are a shell game being played on people in the short term. Compressed garbage is still garbage, and my women’s intuition tells me it does not decompose nearly as quickly or easily as regular trash. Maintenance, machines breaking down and needing upgrades and replacements, that’s a new cost to trash pickup. Do I believe the City of Albany will realize a savings with the BigBelly Solar Compactors filtering across the city? Only time will tell, but I’m seriously doubtful.