Five years ago, Philadelphia was a pioneer when it replaced regular sidewalk trashcans with “smart” solar-powered ones called Big Belly.
The modern trash cans have saved the city cash, but many hate them because of the “ick” factor.
Among the grossed out is Kensington resident Dayo Adeyemi. “I just get disgusted by them,” he said.
Philadelphia was one of the first cities to deploy the smart trash cans on a large scale — replacing all the traditional litter baskets in Center City almost five years ago. Since then, it’s added more than 500 outside of Center City.
But Adeyemi just can’t get past putting his hands on the sometimes sticky, slimy, dirty handle he has to pull down to deposit a wrapper.
“It’s like putting trash in a mailbox,” he said. “You pull them down and it’ll snap back like — I’ve got my hand caught in it one time — snapped by it.”
Handles aside, the city and many residents believe the trash cans are pretty neat. “When they’re full they send us a text message,” said Andrew Stober, with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. The message lets the city know whether the can is full or almost full.
Standing at the corner of JFK Boulevard and 15th Street, Stober checks out one the first Big Belly trashcans and recycling units the city installed. He takes a minute to describe another benefit of the modern receptacles: They have solar panels on top that power a compactor inside, which smashes down the trash, allowing it to hold more before it needs emptying.
“When we had litter baskets, we had three shifts of employees out collecting those litter baskets seven days a week because they would fill up and needed to be emptied,” said Stober. “These we collect with just one shift five days a week.”
The cans aren’t cheap; one Big Belly solar compactor trash can costs $3,812. A recycling unit’s $901.
As for those dreaded handles, Stober said, they’re cleaned four times a year and sometimes for special events drawing big crowds. He points out that we all touch doors knobs and money every day that could be germ-ridden.
He says there are some models with foot pedals but the pedals break, rendering the trash can inoperable. And he points out that on these trash cans the top can’t be opened because people need to be kept safe from the compactor inside.
While he was talking, a firm wind whipped up the street. Stober says on a breezy day like this, if the city had open trash cans, litter would be floating all over the place. Why invite a bad rep by letting that happen? The city has, after all, spent years fighting the unflattering nickname “Filthadelphia.”
Walking up to throw away some trash, M.A. Wadud of the East Falls neighborhood said the Big Bellies are great. But what about touching the handles? “It’s better than littering,” he said.
In some parts of the city, people see these new-age trashcans as much more than just “better than littering.” In those lands, the prospect of getting a Big Belly is exciting.
Jared Solomon leads a group called Take Back Your Neighborhood in the Northeast.
“Neighbors came to me and said, ‘Look we got to figure out a way to really address these trash issues. And we see these new-fangled trash cans running around all in Center City called Big Bellies.'”
Solomon said addressing trash wasn’t just a nuisance .
“It was all along the business corridors. And when you think about encouraging business growth and development, you have to really clean up the streetscape before you get anywhere,” he said. “You can’t talk about a neighborhood coming back unless you get trash under control.”
Solomon says now with Big Belly trash cans along busy Castor Avenue, the corridor is cleaner.
That’s not convincing critic Dayo Adeyemi. To avoid touching those handles, he drops trash in the recycling containers next to Big Bellies.