Did Sanitation trash a cost-saving garbage solution?

The Downtown Alliance installed five solar-powered trash compactors on congested street corners in lower Manhattan last week, making it the latest business improvement district in the city to embrace a trash solution the city Department of Sanitation has rejected.

Private donations enabled the city’s Parks Department to install solar-powered trash compactors in Union Square and Morningside Park, after the city Sanitation department deemed them too costly. Photo: Wilder Fleming

The Alliance anticipates the compactors will rein in the trash now piled in bags along routes to the 9-11 memorial.

“We’re now getting around four and a half million visitors downtown to the memorial and it’s dramatically increased the trash in the public receptacles that we put out,” said Joe Timpone, vice president of operations at the Downtown Alliance. “The residents and the store and hotel owners are complaining.”

The compactors, known as BigBellys, have been placed as part of a 3-month pilot program. If all goes well, the Downtown Alliance plans to purchase the high-tech trash bins, which hold up to five times as much waste as a wire mesh litter basket, according to the manufacturer.

Nearby in Chinatown, local businesses have already conducted a pilot and are now looking to buy. Officials from the fledgling Chinatown Business Improvement District say they are working out a deal with a Bronx company that manufactures and distributes the compactors, following the successful test of a BigBelly on the corner of Canal and Mott Streets.

The Chinatown BID expects the compactors to curb rodent and litter problems. Much like U.S. mailboxes, BigBellys are accessed by pulling on the handle of a door which, upon release, snaps back into place, sealing waste and foul odors inside while keeping rats and other pests out.

Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago are among the cities that have widely installed the so-called BigBellys. Albany installed 93 compactors in 2010 and Mt. Vernon, in Westchester County, purchased 100 this summer.

But in New York City, it has been left up to BIDs and local elected officials to secure funding for a scattering of BigBellys across the five boroughs, after New York City’s Department of Sanitation decided against adopting them following a pilot run in 2010.

“The Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Cleaning Operations conducted a test of BigBelly litter bins and determined that they did not meet our expectations for compaction,” Sanitation’s Deputy Commissioner, Vito Turso, wrote in an email.

Sanitation concluded in its tests that the compactors squeezed trash to less than half the volume advertised by the manufacturer. And at $4,000 apiece, the city deemed the BigBellys prohibitively expensive. A wire litter basket costs $125, according to Turso.

The one-of-a-kind compactors, which are trademarked by the Massachusetts company BigBelly Solar, can now be found on city streets and college campuses around the United States and the world. Not only does the BigBelly harness the sun’s rays to compact trash, but environmentalists also view compaction as a step towards sustainability, since the process cuts down on trips made by trucks hauling waste to the dump.

“With a bag of un-compacted trash, you’re basically taking a bag that’s not quite full and putting it in the dumpster, which itself will appear to be full,” said Franklin Cruz, founder and chairman of Direct Environmental Corp, the Bronx company that partners with BigBelly Solar to manufacture and distribute the compactors in New York State. “Generally the trucks that pull garbage run on diesel fuel and they get eight miles to the gallon. So the carbon footprint is through the roof.”

The BigBelly is also outfitted with a self-monitoring system: an LED light mounted on the exterior turns red when the bin is full. The system transmits notifications via the web to those responsible for waste collection, indicating which bins need emptying and which can wait. BigBelly Solar’s website claims that the BigBelly system cuts collection frequency by between 70 and 80 percent.

The head of the city’s Sanitation workers’ union, Harry Nespoli, did not respond in time for an interview but in the past has been dismissive of the solar trash bins. The New York City Department of Sanitation does not separate the cost of street corner collection from its general “cleaning and collection” budget, but it is currently spending about $9.7 million a year to employ 150 full-time uniformed workers downtown and in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

Philadelphia has been pulling out wire bins and installing BigBellys since May 2009, when 500 trash compactors and 210 non-compacting recycling bins replaced 700 wire bins in the city center at a cost of around $2.3 million, according to the Philadelphia Streets Department. After the BigBellys were introduced, collection rates dropped from 17 trips weekly to just five times per week, which the report predicted would save the city $13 million in collections costs over the next 10 years.

Philadelphia’s controller ran its own numbers and trashed the Streets Department’s findings: it found an average rate of 10 collections per week, double the Streets Department estimate. It concluded the higher collection rate was due in part to malfunctioning self-monitoring systems, which sometimes signaled a BigBelly was “full” when it wasn’t.

The controller also found routine maintenance costs weren’t factored into the Streets Department’s cost estimates and questioned the BigBelly’s 10-year life span as advertised by the manufacturer. The controller concluded that no one in the Streets Department had the knowledge or tools necessary to regularly service BigBellys and that the compactors were not purchased through a competitive bidding process.

“We agree to disagree,” said Streets Department spokesman Scott McGrath of the controller’s critique.

McGrath says weekly collections have now dropped to an average of 2.5, as sanitation workers adjusted to the new system. Among other things, workers had to be trained not to collect from half-empty compactors. Philadelphia currently uses more than 800 BigBellys, McGrath says.

In Boston, the city has been using BigBellys for around five years and officials there say they’re delighted with the compactors.

“We’ve never had problems with the self-monitoring system,” said principal assistant to the commissioner of Public Works, Tim McCarthy, who largely credits the system with improving his department’s collection efficiency. “Instead of checking 400 barrels a day, you just check the [computer system’s] map and say, ‘Look, only 22 barrels need changing.’”

McCarthy said collection rates have gone from 14 per week with the wire bins to just four in peak tourist season. Workers now have more time for other duties, he said. “It also improves quality of life in the city,” he added, “with trucks spending less time checking on bins, idling and blocking traffic.”

And although New York City’s Department of Sanitation concluded that the compactors didn’t squeeze trash nearly as well as advertised, McCarthy in Boston found otherwise.

“The only problem we had in the beginning was the BigBellys were compacting too much and guys were complaining that the barrels were too heavy,” he said. “If you just go by the man-hours saved, it’s worth it.” Boston, he added, will be installing 400 new BigBellys by the end of this year, which will be funded in part by the advertising firm Vector Media.

In New York, city-commissioned research supports the theory that BigBellys reduce rat infestations. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene commissioned its own rodent expert-in-residence, Robert Corrigan, and colleague John Johnson to conduct a one-year study in Thomas Paine Park in lower Manhattan, where the rodent population was known to subsist on food foraged from open trash bins. BigBelly Solar donated three compactors for use in the study, installed in March 2011 to replace three overflowing trash bins near 14 known rat burrows. A year later, only one of the nests remained.

The Downtown Alliance and Chinatown are hoping to follow other Business Improvement Districts — like Union Square’s and Park Slope’s — that have bought and operated their own BigBellys. In its latest statement of needs, Community Board 3, which covers Chinatown and the Lower East Side, noted the area has the third-lowest percentage of acceptably clean streets out of all the community boards in the city, and the third-worst rat infestation in Manhattan.

The test run at Canal and Mott in late 2011 was sponsored by the Chinatown Partnership Economic Development Corporation in late 2011, whose director, Wellington Chen, also spearheaded the creation of the new Chinatown BID.

The BigBellys, Chen says, will not only help clean up Chinatown’s streets but its image as well. “Visitors notice,” he said. “You can see what they say about us on the Internet.”

Business improvement districts are funded by a fee paid by commercial property owners. But not all BIDs can afford to pay for BigBellys without outside help. In the Bronx, BIDs on Southern Boulevard, Third Avenue, and 161st Street each bought two compactors using city capital funds, but have failed to secure money for more.

On the Upper West Side, City Councilmember Gale Brewer recently obtained $50,000 from the city budget to install BigBellys in Verdi Square, on Broadway at 71st Street.

“There’s thousands and thousands of people that pass through that park daily,” Brewer said. “The baskets overflow within a few hours; you get sick of it.”

In Verdi Square, collection responsibilities will fall to the Parks Department, which already owns an additional five BigBellys — four in Union Square Park and one in Morningside Park. All five were paid for by non-governmental organizations, said Manhattan’s chief of operations for Parks, Namshik Yoon.

In Chinatown, BID Chairman David Louie says the BID is seeking sponsors in exchange for advertising space on the compactors’ side panels, and says he’s convinced the BigBellys will be a solid investment for the neighborhood.

“The BID is going to try to keep Chinatown clean,” he said, “and this is going to help with that.”

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