Saturday, February 13, 2016

Getting a handle on the Big Belly problem

Like a lot of eco-oriented people here, I was enthused about the Big Belly solar-compacting trash cans when the city of Philadelphia first put them on Broad Street last year. But that was before I actually had occasion - multiple occasions, in fact - to use one.

Getting a handle on the Big Belly problem

Can't touch this: Do you know where that handle's been?

Like a lot of eco-oriented people here, I was enthused about the Big Belly solar-compacting trash cans when the city of Philadelphia first put them on Broad Street last year. But that was before I actually had occasion - multiple occasions, in fact - to use one. Even as our paper looked into the phenomenon of these newfangled trash cans and gave it a thumbs-up, my attitude soured.

Not because I thought they didn't work as advertised, or that their placement on our streets represented some kind of fiscal boondoggle, but because unlike the regular trash cans, you have to touch them to use them (for throwing away trash, that is). In a follow-up post in April of this year, I said

having now spent many instances walking up to one with my hands full or otherwise not in the mood to touch a greasy handle in order to throw away some small piece of trash, I gotta ask: Why is the recycling portion of these double units a simple hole to toss into while the trash part requires several hydraulic-oriented movements to accomplish? Seems to me that making throwing trash away easier, rather than harder, would be a boon to a city that's launched multiple anti-litter campaigns and still finds trash lying around all over town.

By May, I found other people speaking out about the handles. One of the most eloquent was WYSP's Spike Eskin, who explained, in a popular blog item that month entitled "Philadelphia's Solar-Powered Trash Cans are Gross":

I don’t want to touch trash cans IN MY OWN HOUSE, much less on the street. Something tells me, if you can invent a solar powered trash compactor, someone can come up with a pedal that can allow us to open the trash cans without touching them.

Finally, today it emerged that - in addition to the questionable design of their user interface - the Big Belly trash cans don't work as advertised and their placement on our streets represents some kind of fiscal boondoggle, according to Controller Alan Butkovitz.

Wow. That in itself is something to get your head around, but more importantly, as Philly Weekly recounts,

Our editor’s response to the news? “I hate those trash cans. They have handles that aren’t automatic and people are forced to touch them. Which is utterly disgusting.”

The controller seemed to agree. “Requiring citizens to grasp a possible germ-infested unsanitary handle to dispose of trash may not encourage use of these trash receptacles,” the report said.

While I'm not enough of a trash-technology expert to weigh in on what can be done on our city's apparently ill-considered purchase of these trash cans, as a user of same I can only hope we're seeing a groundswell against those handles.

UPDATE 7/13: Here's the Page One story from today's Daily News on the Controller's report. Amazingly they ignored the key issue - the handles! I guess they had to save something for a follow-up...

UPDATE 7/14: Now the Daily News Editorial Board weighs in, blasting Butkovitz for grandstanding - but they also ignore the key issue here! Won't somebody think of the handles???

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About this blog
Earth to Philly is a weblog focusing on earth-conscious technology, trends and ideas, from a Daily News perspective. We look at the "green" aspects of your home, business, food, transportation, style, policy, gadgets and artwork. If you have a Philly-related story, Click here to let us know about it!

The experts at Philadelphia's Energy Coordinating Agency answer your energy questions in our regular feature Stay Warm, Stay Green. Send in your question or questions to

Look for Jenice Armstrong to supply tips on green living as well as occasional columns on the subject of Green. She also blogs at Hey Jen.

Becky Batcha stays tuned for the here-and-now practical side of conservation, alternative energy, organic foods, etc. - stuff you can do at home now. Plus odds and ends.

Laurie Conrad recycles from her ever-growing e-mailbag to pass along the latest travel deals, fashion statements, household strategies, gadgets, cool local events and other nuggets of interest to those who appreciate a clean, green world.

Vance Lehmkuhl looks at topics like eco-conscious eating, public transportation and fuel-efficient driving from his perspective as a vegetarian, a daily SEPTA bus rider and a hybrid driver, as well as noting the occasional wacky trend or product. Contact Vance with your 'green' news.

Ronnie Polaneczky sees the green movement through the eyes of her 12-year-old daughter, who calls her on every scrap of paper or glass bottle that Ronnie neglects to toss into the house recycling bins. Ronnie will blog about new or unexpected ways to go green. She also blogs at So, What Happened Was...

Sandra Shea and the DN editorial board opine on any green-related legislation or policy. And we'll pass along some of the opeds on the subject that people send us.

Jonathan Takiff will be blogging mainly about consumer electronics - those things that we love to use and that suck too much energy. He'll spotlight green-conscious gizmos made in a responsible fashion, both in terms of materials used and the energy it takes to run them.

Signe Wilkinson draws the comic strip Family Tree, which follows the Tree family as they try to live green in the face of nattering neighbors, plastic-wrapped consumer products, and the primal teenage urge to spend vast quantities of money on hair care products of dubious organic quality.

In addition to these updates from our newsroom bloggers, watch for an occasional feature, Dumpster Diver Dispatches, from Philadelphia's original "green" community of artists, the Dumpster Divers. You'll learn about creative ways to reuse and recycle while you reduce, and about the artists who are making little masterpieces from what others throw out.

  • Dispatch #1: Margaret Giancola's rugs from plastic bags
  • Dispatch #2: Dumpster Divers in City Hall (Art in City Hall series)
  • Dispatch #3: Wild wood, New Jersey
  • Dispatch #4: Dumpster Divers award winners announced
  • Dispatch #5: From sweaters to colorful cuddling
  • Dispatch #6: Green artists retake South Street Sunday
  • Dispatch #7: Isaiah Zagar: He's a Magic (Gardens) Man

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