New bins for a New Year?

I have seen the future of binfrastructure and it is Bigbelly Solar.

When I first started going on rubbish walks and the seeds of obsession with litter and waste management were originally planted, it was the binfrastructure—or lack thereof– that I noticed. When you seriously begin to look at them, you realise that most bins tend to be poorly designed. Some are “topless”, open to the elements and allowing litter to be scattered with a strong gust of wind or serving as a smorgasbord for wildlife. Others go too far in the opposite direction, with openings you practically have to stick your hand inside to use. Some are poorly maintained and end up covered in filth. In these instances, who actually wants to use them for their intended purpose?

When talking to people at Community Clean Ups, they typically say that there aren’t enough bins, and indeed bins need to be in the right location or, again, who is going to bother using them? For example along Malmesbury Road, the path I walk every day between my house and the Chippenham train station, there is a grand total of one bin (and it is often overflowing – see below). Anecdotes aside, I can point to academic research from a number of disciplines that all says the same thing: people will follow the path of least resistance. As far as bins are concerned, this means people will not double back or go out of their way to use them.

This all brings me to the reason we had a meeting earlier in the month with John from Bigbelly Solar. While I was familiar with Bigbelly from seeing them around Bath and a little bit of internet research, it was great to have the opportunity to learn more about what these technologically-enhanced bins have to offer.

First, the cleanliness. Unlike most bins, Bigbelly bins have a handle so you don’t actually have to put your hand in with the rubbish. Even this is getting a facelift, with bins having a foot pedal to open the door. This means that dog walkers, for example, can easily bin bags of poo with one hand while holding on to potentially rambunctious pooches with another.

The Bigbelly part of the name refers to the fact that the bins can hold up to 8 times more waste than a normal bin. This is possible because solar panels provide enough energy to run a compactor; the bins lock themselves and compact the waste on a regular basis. This in turn leads to bins that need to be emptied less often and, perhaps more importantly, bins that will tell you when they are full thanks to internal sensors.

Something I am always harping on about—data—is built into the Bigbelly system from the start. Mapping is initially carried out, and once the bins are installed Councils can easily log in and see where the bins are, what their current status is, if there are any technical faults, and they can also produce a number of reports to better manage waste in a region.  

As you might expect, the initial cost of the bins is not cheap. However, they save labour and petrol costs. For example, say a city has 80 bins that are emptied twice a day, 7 days a week. That is 1120 times that the bins are emptied, whether they need them or not. With Bigbelly, it’s possible to see exactly what needs done and when. Perhaps only 5 of those bins need to be emptied once on a given day. This means that the time previously spent going from bin-to-bin can be reallocated: planting flowers, perhaps, or fixing potholes.

One of the low-tech things that Bigbelly offers is the ability to have bin “wraps”. This stops bins from being camouflaged, as they typically are now, and allows them to become flexible street furniture. Some Councils use them to bring in an income with advertising, but the possibilities are endless. Can you imagine a school-wide contest, with the winning drawing being put on the bin? Or, what I personally would love to see, wraps designed by artists. Why not have “bin trail”, like the popular Gromit and Shaun the Sheep statues?

So, are there any negatives? Besides the cost, the main issue I have is that there seems to be push to encourage a reduction in the number of bins available due to volume, i.e. because Bigbelly bins can hold more than a traditional rubbish bin, Councils install fewer bins. Actually taking user behaviour into account is so important to ensure that present mistakes don’t get replicated into the future.

As you may have guessed by the gushing post, this is the type of thing I would love to see in Chippenham, even if only on a trial basis to see what difference it makes. Technology is improving things all the time, from the phones in our pockets to smart, connected homes. Why shouldn’t rubbish bins also enter the 21st century?

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This is a bin I am very familiar with – I used to live in the house opposite and my office window overlooked it. Its current overflowing state is not unusual; it is the first bin you come across after leaving John Coles Park, and it is the only bin along a stretch of Malmesbury Road.  Also note the red phone box and postbox, but black bin; why the need for camouflage?

[Photo taken 23 December 2015; I am pleased to announce this bin has been replaced with something bigger].

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