Solar powered trash cans lead to doubt and debate in Syracuse

I was surprised by a string of articles (linked at the end of this post) in the Syracuse Post Standard this week that covered the various reactions to Onondaga County’s plan to install Big Belly trash cans throughout Syracuse.  Big Belly trash cans operate a solar powered compactor in order to hold up to 5 times more waste than a traditional trash can. Another unique feature is the wireless signal the trash can uses to notify workers when it needs to be emptied. The upfront cost of these trash cans is about $4000, while a similar municipal trash can is about $200. However, maintenance costs are often lower for the Big Belly trashcan due to decreased frequency of emptying. Two have been installed in Syracuse so far, and Onondaga County hopes to install 300 more in order to reduce litter flow into the local streams and Onondaga Lake.

A Big Belly trash can in downtown Syracuse. Photo credit: Michelle Breidenbach,

A few things about the new coverage stood out to me : (1) most comments are negative, focusing on the high upfront costs of the Big Belly trashcans, the fact that tax money is used to pay for the trash cans, possible failings of the design, and some going so far as to cite negative effects of the cost savings (e.g. decreased employment of municipal workers); (2) the author of the article also seems quite skeptical about the benefits of the Big Belly trashcans, discussing many of the negative features before mentioning the rationale of the County government; and (3) this new technology functions quite differently in each of the cities where it has been placed (it seems to function flawlessly in Ithaca while several clear drawbacks exist in Philadelphia).

Many aspects of the Big Belly trashcan and government plans to implement them are in tune with sustainable engineering design. For example, from Anastas and ZImmerman’s Twelve Principles of Green Engineering, the Onondaga County government is attempting to prevent waste from entering the local water bodies rather than clean it up (principle 2), the trash can design aims to maximize mass, space and time efficiency  (principle 4), and the need to empty the trashcan is “output pulled” as it is emptied only when it is full rather than daily (principle 5). Similarly, several principles form the Sandestin Principles of Green Engineering are inherent in the design: it uses systems analysis to solve litter flow issues (principle 1) and it is a new technology that acts beyond the current dominant trashcan design (principle 8).

However, the articles provide evidence that the plan to install Big Belly trashcans throughout Syracuse violates several principles of green engineering. There clearest two are Sandestein Principles 7 (Develop and apply engineering solutions, while being cognizant of local geography, aspirations, and culture), and 9 (Actively engage communities and stakeholders in development of engineering solutions). These principles come into play more so with this technology than other waste management technologies because its effectiveness is dependent upon proper use by citizens. One hypothetical case of this technology being an less sustainable choice based on the local culture would be if the Big Belly trash cans were installed in an area where pedestrians are environmentally unaware and throw their waste into the streets. The installation of the trash cans would not solve the true problem, which is a lack of environmental awareness or an apathetic attitude regarding trash management.

This all gets back to the third point that struck me in the articles: the Big Belly trash can’s effectiveness depends on the city where it exists. Having lived in both Ithaca and Philadelphia, I understand the differences pointed out by the articles. Philadelphia has a larger problem with graffiti on public property. Ithaca’s citizens are generally environmentally aware and motivated to follow proper waste management protocols. However, some of the a drawbacks mentioned for Philadelphia may not be as negative as they seem at first glance. For instance, the higher frequency of emptying the Big Belly trashcans (~10x per week) may be due to an increased use of the trashcans, and thus there is a real environmental benefit  (and associated cost savings) as the waste in the streets/local environment decreases with increased trashcan usage.

So how will these trash cans interact with the residents of Syracuse? Will they lead to decreased waste due to increased trashcan use? Will workers be properly trained to empty and maintain this new technology? Will they forever be resented due to their high upfront costs? Many of these issues could be at least partially mitigated by increased community engagement. The local community had already been shut out from environmental decision making in the past, and it is clear that there are many passionate voices out there that want to be heard. Including public knowledge in environmental decision making can enlighten the true drivers of environmental issues within Syracuse and Onondaga County and ultimately lead to more sustainable solutions.

Articles links:


2 thoughts on “Solar powered trash cans lead to doubt and debate in Syracuse

  1. You have a great debate going on here. I see this technology as a way to reduce the actual volume of waste going to our landfills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the number of truck trips to haul the waste – although the upfront cost is quite steep (!). I hadn’t heard about the issues Philadelphia is having with their Big Belly trash cans. The ones in my neighborhood of Philly have been covered with environmentally-themed art through a contest run by the local CDC. I’ve also seem them successfully implemented in airports and on college campuses.

    1. I’ve seen a few around Philly that have been overflowing or have some graffiti on them, but it sounds like maybe city officials are turning it into a positive opportunity to make and artistic statement, which is awesome!

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