Tossing inefficiency to the curb

In a pilot project, Iowa State cut its trash collection costs by 90 percent using BigBelly solar trash compactors.
In a pilot project, Iowa State cut its trash collection costs by 90 percent using BigBelly solar compactors.

Taking out the trash is about to get a whole lot greener at a number of campuses this fall, as colleges and universities invest in solar trash compactors that are expected to save them money in the long haul.

Eleven new BigBelly solar compactors are being installed across the Iowa State University campus in areas where traditional trash receptacles used to need to be emptied multiple times a day, said ISU Director of Sustainability Merry Rankin.

The devices are cutting trash collection costs as a result of their built-in solar-powered compactors. They store up solar energy throughout the day, then when the container fills to a certain point, the compactor crushes the trash.

The compactors hold five times more trash than a typical 25-gallon trash container, Rankin said.

ISU placed one of the compactors in front of Curtiss Hall in the fall of 2009, the first ever in the state of Iowa. Facilities crews closely monitored the compactor to see what difference it would make and were satisfied with the results, Rankin said.

“Compared to the trash can we had before, we cut our collection costs by 90 percent,” she said.

Another feature of the new compactors is that they contain a sensor that notifies facilities, planning, and management when the containers need to be emptied. This will save workers the trouble of constantly checking the bins, Rankin said.

Each compactor costs around $5,000, she said, which includes the compactor itself and the decorative coverings that were added to each of the devices by the university.

Though they carry a large price tag, Rankin said cost-savings data from the pilot compactor indicated the machines should pay for themselves in around five years.

The designs are meant to draw attention to the compactors, but they also include information about the technology and ISU’s LiveGreen Initiative. Each container has its own theme, depicting ISU’s mascot, Cy, portraying different parts of the student experience.

Rankin said the success of the solar compactors demonstrates that sustainability efforts don’t always have to be large and far-reaching projects.

“Iowa State has been very thoughtful in having a full, round approach at different ways to incorporate sustainable practices,” she said. “Even something as simple as a trash can can have a very important impact.”

As part of its own sustainability efforts, Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Facilities Services also is replacing its traditional garbage cans with BigBelly solar compactors.

“They have a consistent and clean look, and they don’t cost much to maintain,” said Gene Matthews, director of facilities services.

Matthews said the university has approximately 200 trash bins. Each BigBelly installation will eliminate six to seven open trash containers. Each of the compactors also comes with a companion recycling bin for plastic, glass, and aluminum containers.

“Ultimately, we want to outfit the entire campus with these. We’re trying to create consistent, identifiable waste stations that reduce costs and show our commitment to sustainability,” he said.

Not everyone is satisfied with the results of the solar trash compactors: The city controller’s office in Philadelphia is questioning the value of compactors installed downtown last summer.

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