Saving Space by Smashing Waste

Hi-tech bins enhance sustainability and save time, money for staff

Skip Graves empties solar trash compactors near the Bryan Center on West Campus. Graves said the hi-tech bins have helped save him time throughout the work day. Photo by Bryan Roth.

Repetition is part of the job for Skip Graves, who visits locations across the University and Health System each day to collect trash and recycling. But for the past year, his trips have become a little less repetitive due to new trashcan technology.

Nine solar powered trash and recycling receptacles have been stationed outside the Bryan Center since last fall, along with a bin outside the Undergraduate Admissions office. Each is equipped with a compactor run by a solar powered battery.

That means instead of emptying trash multiple times a day, Graves and other Facilities Management workers empty the bins once a day, saving time and money in the process.

"If we didn't have these, someone would have to be out here a couple times every 24 hours," Graves said. "It's a big help."

The bins are made by BigBelly Solar, a company founded by Duke graduate Jim Poss. Along with Duke, campuses like Boston University, Iowa State University and others across the country use the solar-powered bins.

Standing about 4-feet tall, the compactors are charged by the sun and use a 12-volt battery to power an arm that compacts waste with a maximum force of 1,250 pounds. That allows almost 150 gallons of waste to be compacted down to nearly 40.

Each trash bin includes a series of sensors that keep track of the amount of trash collected. Not only does that allow the bin to know when to compact waste, it can also send emails to alert Facilities Management staff of when each bin nears capacity.

"Each morning we'll get an email, so we can then tell our drivers which bins to empty instead of going around to check every one," said David Bryant, superintendent for sanitation and recycling.  "That's time staff can use for other jobs, cleaning up around the dumpsters or visiting other areas of campus."

While recycling bins that sit next to trash bins are not equipped with a compacter, they do contain sensors that alert Facilities staff when they need to be emptied. Bryant said that's been a big help, because staff members collect recycling an average of once per week from each bin instead of checking every day.

Specific data hasn’t been collected, but Bryant noted that when institutions add single-stream recycling options next to trash bins, there's typically an average increase of 20 to 45 percent in items that get recycled. That has the potential to add up quick.

"It's important to provide easy access to both trash and recycling in this high traffic area on West Campus," said Casey Roe, outreach coordinator for Sustainable Duke. "Higher recycling rates keep disposable items out of the landfill and help repurpose the materials into something new."