I recently moved to Philadelphia—you know, the city of brotherly love. And sure enough, I've been impressed by how welcoming the folks in my neighborhood are. I have not, unfortunately, been similarly impressed with the city's modernity. The streets are in disrepair and are poorly lit at night. The subway, which only consists of two lines, is the only remaining system in the U.S. that still takes tokens. Walking around, there's little evidence to suggest Philly has entered the information age at all—which is why I definitely noted the presence of solar-powered trash-compacting garbage cans on South Street.
They seemed like odd curiosities; half-hearted stabs at modernizing something, anything, and on the cheap. But they only appeared that way because I didn't really understand the value of their function. It turns out they're a pretty amazing innovation—and they saved the city $900,000 last year.
The cans are manufactured and operated by a company called BigBelly, and Advanced Energy Now explains how they work: "the compactors use off-grid solar power to support their low power sensors, compaction system, and bi-directional communications systems for real-time reporting on a bin’s capacity. By allowing municipalities to service the BigBellys only when they are full, they are saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel annually across all BigBelly units."
That's ingenious. It's a thoughtful, hi-tech solution to a municipal waste problem. Because the "information gained from each compactor allows waste managers to optimize collection schedules and routes." Before BigBelly, trash collectors had to clear out each can three times a day. Now they do so three times a week.
And I'm not bashing Philly by calling attention to its out-dated infrastructure. It's not a rich city, like New York or San Francisco, with cash to dump into sprawling bike lanes or urban composting programs. It is, in fact, like the bulk of American cities—it has lost its manufacturing base, it has persistent problems with crime and poverty, rampant inequality, and a million things to spend its tax cash on besides gadgets.
Which is why I'm increasingly interested in what cities like Philadelphia are doing technologically—which innovations these cash-strapped governments choose to embrace. The BigBelly's a fine example of good tech that saves cash right out the gate, with relatively little up-front investment.
I mean, It's great that New York can install touch-screen subway maps and launch high-end bike-sharing programs. But other cities with more modest budgets and fewer tech-savvy entrepreneurs have to turn to less flashy tech, like hyper-efficient trash cans. Let's see what else is out there.