Smart Trash Cans are Quietly Supporting the Rise of the Smart City

Discussions around smart cities tend, perhaps naturally, to focus on the more exciting side of life: the intelligent home which can be personalised in a thousand different ways, say, or the prospect of browsing multimedia in autonomous vehicles.  As important as just about any other facet of a city’s management, however, is its strategy for waste – get that wrong, and the cities of the future may not turn out to be the gleaming metropolises of artist renditions.  But more than that, where something as functional and ubiquitous as a rubbish bin can be turned to broader uses – and enable solutions which themselves have no relation to waste disposal – it can become part of the glue that holds a smart city together.

That is the rationale behind a line of smart bins from Bigbelly, which have been quietly deployed in 60,000 locations across 55 countries since 2003. To put the scale of that growth in some context, the bins have captured over 160 million gallons of waste in the last 12 months alone, and over 24 million IoT connections.  Waste collection has long been a famously inefficient and resource-intensive industry, with cities often either collecting too frequently – wasting fuel and labour while creating needless carbon emissions – or not often enough, leading to overflowing bins and obvious impacts on health, safety and quality of life.  By deploying bins which measure their own levels of capacity, compact rubbish accordingly and let administrators know when they need to be emptied, civic authorities can redeploy those resources and identify trends in waste generation for planning purposes.

Global Smart Waste Management – Help the Climate

These improvements can be made in settlements of just about any shape or size.  In New York City’s Times Square, sometimes nicknamed ‘the crossroads of the world’, a successful pilot quickly saw deployment rise to 197 smart stations with built-in compaction, fullness sensing, and collection notifications.  That has led to capacity increasing by nearly 200%, a 50% reduction in weekly collections, and the City exceeding its already ambitious recycling rate by a third.  In Philadelphia more than 1.1 million collections are being saved per year.  Across the Atlantic, in the Irish port town of Dún Laoghaire, Bigbelly’s bins have reduced the collection rate by a remarkable 85%, bringing down operational costs by 75%; that’s resulted in annual savings of around €200,000, and annual CO2 savings of 69 tons. Private businesses, and institutions like parks and colleges, can benefit too – as Facilities Services Manager at Northern Arizona University Justin Dinardi puts it, “no-one compliments the empty trash can, but an overflow is inexcusable. With BigBelly the trash reports itself – and in our line of services, this feature is invaluable.”

Connecting Citizens with the City and Beyond

Beyond that important work in waste management itself, however, Bigbelly’s units have been turned to a wider purpose, through collaboration with Telit: growing smart cities by connecting other IoT solutions, and indeed consumer mobile devices, through cell antennae and a multipurpose IoT platform. This ingenious approach to connectivity allows cities to hide communications infrastructure such as Wi-Fi or 4G hotspots (and 5G in the future) in plain sight. There are already over 50,000 Bigbelly core smart waste units enabling connectivity to telecom networks, and a further 300 ‘Telebelly’ stations hosting multipurpose IT equipment, helping to serve all manner of purposes by their strategic positioning throughout public right of ways and public spaces. The latter number will continue to grow as communities around the world are seeking innovative and aesthetically pleasing siting solutions.

Innovations of this kind are what the IoT and smart cities are really all about. Rather than being made up of the grand sweeping changes favoured in sci-fi movies or overexcited press releases, the reality will be more subtle and organic: ostensibly mundane and simple aspects of the urban landscape finding far more sophisticated and multifaceted roles to play, growing almost unseen into rapidly densifying webs of connectivity.  If such ingenuity can already be achieved through something as unremarkable and unglamorous as a rubbish bin, the implications for the near future are genuinely exciting – we can expect to see many more such interesting case studies in the next few years.