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Brown University: Solar-powered trash can reduces carbon footprint, cuts costs

March 7, 2011

BigBelly trash cans compact the trash they receive and call for pickup when they are full. Fewer pickups means savings on truck fuel and maintenance staff time.

Providence, RI – Stroll across the College Green or stand outside the Sharpe Refectory, and you may notice a squat, silver container with a solar panel on top that bears a faint resemblance to the lovable Star Wars character R2-D2.

It’s actually a special trash can created by a company called BigBelly Solar. Supporters say the containers handle garbage more efficiently by periodically compacting the trash inside, creating space for more garbage. That’s especially important in high-traffic areas like the Ratty, where warmer weather will mean more people eating lunch outside. The BigBelly is also outfitted with sensors connected to a computer server that can call for trash pickup when the unit is full.

Brown has purchased three BigBelly solar compactors and may buy as many as 20 more to spread around campus, according to Ginger Gritzo, energy and environmental programs coordinator in Facilities Management. “Once we saw for ourselves that the unit really was saving fuel and time, we developed a campuswide implementation plan,” Gritzo wrote in an email.

Kai Morrell, a senior concentrating in environmental studies, has been involved in the project since her freshman year. She joined Gritzo at Facilities Management in spring 2008 as a student recycling coordinator after answering a job listing. Soon they were talking trash and looking at the possibilities of economizing on garbage disposal. “Ginger and I get excited about trash cans, but others don’t,” said Morrell.

In 2009 before classes started in the fall, Beppie Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration, spied the solar-fueled trash cans while on a trip in Ireland. She reported her finding to Facilities Management, and last spring, BigBelly made its première outside the Ratty.

“Trash cans are something that are so commonplace,” Morrell said. “People don’t often think about them as (generating) a carbon footprint. I think rethinking that is great.”

Gritzo credited Morrell with getting students interested in garbage disposal (a naming campaign for the solar compactors begins this month as part of “Recyclemania”) and other environmental initiatives on campus.

The BigBelly solar compactors have gotten a lot of use and are justifying their price. They also fit in well with Brown’s vision of adopting more sustainable practices.

“I feel people feel really good when they’re doing good things. That’s the same with the trash compactor,” Morrell said. “You feel good about participating in it, about being part of positive change.”

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The BigBelly solar-powered trash compactor reduces volume, knows when it's full, and requests its own pickups.

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