Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Big Appetite for High-Dollar Big Bellies

One person's trash truly can be somebody else's treasure.

Just ask the people behind Big Belly Solar, a garbage can company.

How much would you be willing to pay for an industrial-strength garbage can that's about four feet high and two feet wide?  With a solar-powered trash compactor built-in, and a computer chip to monitor when the trash needs to be compacted, and when the garbage can is full?

Five hundred dollars, you offer?  How about one thousand?  Two thousand?  No, you need to go a bit higher.  Double, in fact.

Each Big Belly trash can sells for the nifty price of $4,000.  And you wouldn't believe who's buying them at that price, thinking it's a bargain.

You.  And me.  We taxpayers are buying them via our United States Department of Energy, and with stimulus money the Obama administration has been doling out to cities in its bid to jump-start the economy.  You and I have purchased about 200 of Philadelphia's 900 Big Belly cans, and 40 in Raleigh, North Carolina, where for some reason, they cost $7,000 apiece.  We've only bought two of these trash cans so far in Syracuse, New York, but they want us* to pay for 200 more.

Fortunately, although several dozen Big Belly cans have been installed across New York City, including 30 in Times Square alone, their sanitation department in the Big Apple has balked at the price, forcing corporate citizens and special tax financing districts in several neighborhoods to pay for them instead.

Big Belly's corporate office claims that cities can recoup the cost by saving money on work crews that have to check on trash collection receptacles throughout the day.  The solar-powered compactors built into each unit sense when the contents of the container need to be pressed down so that more trash can be collected in one bag, and even notifies a central command center when it's full, thereby reducing the number of trips needed to empty the unit.  Of course, each trash bin has to have extra-duty trash bags, like the household trash compactor in your kitchen does, and you know what happens when you don't use those special bags:  liquids and crumbs end up collecting at the bottom.

Reading the promotional literature for Big Bellies makes you wonder why everybody isn't lining up to pay $4,000 apiece for them.  One of their key benefits supposedly involves the 80% reduction in greenhouse gasses they can create, ostensibly since fossil-fuel-burning garbage trucks have to run collection routes less often.  But do municipal garbage trucks run unique, never-duplicated routes all the time?  When are all of the bins ever 100% full at the same time anyway?  Composting the trash may delay the inevitable need for those nasty fossil-fuel-burning trucks to come lumbering by, but how many cities are going to throw their garbage truck routes out of the window?  Maybe bureaucrats take such statistics on face value, but for $4,000 apiece, I think those of us paying for them want a bit more logic thrown into the mix.

Speaking of logic, some gems of reality can be gleaned from Philadelphia's experience with Big Bellies.  On the surface, the City of Brotherly Love is in love with these high-priced trash bins, but an internal report by the city's controller found numerous problems with their expensive toys.  Among other things, city crews, being on a schedule, went around on regular routes throughout the city collecting the trash from these units, whether the solar-powered sensor was telling them the unit was full or not.  Oops - no savings on either human resources costs or environmental footprints there.

The bins also collected bits and pieces of trash, sticky residue, and other detritus, which requires them to be cleaned out - by hand - on a fairly frequent basis.  Their solar screens get damaged easily, the solar-powered indicator showing the unit's available capacity frequently malfunctions, and Big Belly's corporate folks have no proof that the 10-year life expectancy they claim for their product is realistic.

Indeed, sitting out on a city sidewalk in all weather, exposed to whatever vandalism urban furniture has to endure, having to consume whatever the public puts into it - whether it was designed for that waste or not, being as unreliable as Philadelphia has determined them to be, and being vulnerable to significant damage by wayward cars, Big Belly cans hardly seem more cost-efficient than the basic wire trash receptacles most pedestrians have to use, and for which taxpayers have to pay.

And even if the Big Belly technology worked flawlessly, and their construction was foolproof, there's still absolutely nothing that helps it pick up more trash!  Nothing about the Big Bellies will encourage more people to use them.  Company officials want their customers to think that pedestrians will be so enamored and awe-struck by these computerized trash cans that they'll want to throw everything they can into them.  But frankly, if a slob isn't going to throw their trash into a $100 wire basket, they're not going to pull a handle and insert their trash into the chute of a Big Belly can.

Ah, yes - those handles.  Each Big Belly is self-contained, with a chute you pull open so you can deposit your trash into the container.  But as the Philadelphia controller's report shows, that handle itself may not be something somebody needing to discard trash may want to touch.

Still, there are suckers born every minute, and the guys who invented the Big Belly in 2003 have been able to build a thriving business selling $4,000 garbage cans to them.  Big Bellies can now be found in nearly every state, and thirty countries around the world, with much of their business coming from existing customers who want to expand their use of the well-marketed trash cans.

Fortunately for us taxpayers, we're not having to pay for all of them.  The city of Cincinnati, for example, has a wealthy environmentalist who's paying for theirs, and Boston has inked a deal with an outdoor advertising company who wants to use the sizable dimensions of each Big Belly to sell promotional space.

And it's not like there's no benefit for concealing a city's trash inside a big, solar-powered receptacle.  New York City ran a study and determined that Big Bellies are rat-proof, which is music to the ears of anybody who's walked down a dark sidewalk at night and heard spooky rustling noises coming out of those wire garbage cans.

But four thousand dollars apiece?

Kinda puts a new spin on "disposable income," doesn't it?

* Update:  The 200 extra Big Belly cans for Syracuse may be purchased with funds New York State collects from power generation companies.  The state penalizes companies a dollar amount based on their greenhouse gas emissions, and money from the fund those penalties generate could be used to pay for the pricey trash cans.  So we federal taxpayers may be off the hook there - unless you pay a utility bill in New York State.

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