City says new trash cans coming; Controller says they're a waste

City Council approved a pending deal Thursday to bring 275 new trash compactors to Center City, on the same day City Controller Alan Butkovitz issued a report calling the existing trash cans ill-maintained and a waste of money.

The new compactors, fitted with foot pedals, will be provided free to the city in exchange for advertising rights. Under the contract, which has not been finalized, 125 existing compactors would be refurbished.

The city has 975 solar-powered trash compactors, positioned mostly around Center City and in commercial corridors. The first 300 came to Philadelphia starting in 2009. City officials have paid $4.5 million for the compactors, funded through various grants.

The compactors cost $3,700 each, and can send electronic alerts to the Streets Department when nearing capacity. The compactors hold five times the waste of the previously used wire trash cans, which cost the city $100 each.

But over the last seven years, many have fallen into extreme disrepair. They overflow with trash, their doors hang open, and aluminum handles are often stolen to be sold as scrap metal, rendering the compactors useless.

A BigBelly trash compactor. (Courtesy of the Office of the City Controller)

Butkovitz, who released a report critical of the compactors in 2010, issued a follow-up Thursday. He said many of the same issues remain. Most alarmingly, a software system that monitors the cans has been down since January, leaving approximately eight out of 10 cans with no way to alert the Streets Department when full.

The compactors, which were under warranty for only four years, break down often enough to require a five-person city maintenance team to fix them. Butkovitz noted that when maintenance and parts costs are factored in, the city has paid $6.5 million for the compactors over the last seven years. He played a video of a city worker struggling to empty a packed can, set to ominous music.

Butkovitz called the new contract, which will outsource some maintenance work, an acknowledgment of some of the current program’s flaws.

“I think this is an acknowledgment that the city was not able to handle the maintenance issues,” Butkovitz said. “Basically it’s an acknowledgment that the city’s role for the last seven years hasn’t worked.”

Butkovitz said he was optimistic about the new deal but wants the city to do a better job of monitoring how much manpower goes into taking care of the high-tech trash cans.

“We know that what they’re describing as their goal sounds hopeful, and it appears to address the issues we’re raising here. Of course the whole thing is execution, so that will have to be determined in the future,” he said.

While the city initially claimed the compactors could save $13 million in personnel costs over 10 years, the actual savings has been $6.4 million, according to Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams. “With regard to maintenance cost — that was one thing we didn’t expect to be so high,” Williams said. “We needed staff members to deal with vandalism and make sure they were serviced correctly.”

On Thursday, City Council gave the green light to the city to enter into a new agreement with BigBelly — the lone bidder — and the advertising firm Green City Solutions LLC.

Under the agreement, Green City will pay for the 275 compactors and their maintenance and cleaning in exchange for advertising rights. The city will still empty the cans and receive 5 percent of advertising revenue to put toward the 975 older cans, which they will continue to maintain.

Williams called the agreement a “state-of-the-art deal for Philadelphia.” He said the addition of new Center City trash compactors will allow the city to spread some of the existing compactors to neighborhoods and commercial corridors currently without them. The Streets Department is also looking into adding foot pedals to the old compactors.

Williams said the department had received several complaints about the handles:

“We heard our citizens saying, ‘We don’t want to touch that.'”