It’s called the “BigBelly,” and it’s being pitched to cities across the country as a miracle of American innovation. It’s a solar-powered trash compactor designed to replace ordinary city trash receptacles. There is practically no green-tech buzzword that doesn’t apply to these things.
I first began seeing the BigBellies in New Orleans last year along the Canal Streetcar line. The website Clean Technica reported in December 2012 that the city hoped to have “at least 150 solar-powered trash compactors installed,” before the Super Bowl and that, contracts and bidding permitted, “[t]his number could be expanded to 242.”
Presently, the city is planning on expanding the BigBelly receptacles to the French Quarter and Downtown Development District. The bid date is set for October 30th at 11 a.m. It’s happening, and it’s happening soon.
What hasn’t happened, at least as far as I can see, is proper due diligence.
The BigBelly is one of those government plans to spend a mess of money immediately with the promise of saving lots of money in the future. Each unit costs $5,000, with an additional $2,000 for an add-on recycling bin. The 12 volt batteries used to power the compactor must be replaced every five years, at an additional cost of $500 per battery.
That’s a far cry from the cost of ordinary trash cans, which range from as little as $100 for a wire can to several hundred for sturdier cement receptacles.
However, as a trash compactor the BigBelly has to be emptied far less often. According to BigBelly Solar, the company that produces the devices, collection is reduced by up to 80%. By reducing the cost of labor, the trope goes, a BigBelly will pay for itself long before its useful life is over.
However, this hasn’t been the experience of other cities. In 2010, Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz issued a report claiming that “the BigBelly compactors aren’t as good a deal as city and company officials promised.”
Butkovitz noted that the city had predicted that the BigBelly would reduce collection trips from 17 per week to 5, but the city was actually still actually performing 10 trips per week. Thus, the predicted savings simply weren’t materializing.
“We believe due diligence was absent in this $2.1 million contract purchase,” Butkovitz opined.
Philadelphia isn’t the only case where the BigBelly experiment was shown to be dubious. A 2013 report by the Evans School Review at the University of Washington analyzed a plan to install BigBellies in Seattle parks to reduce costs. As in Philadelphia, BigBelly Solar made some very optimistic predictions regarding the savings that could be achieved.
“We can say with 100 percent certainty that there is no realistic scenario in which this project would pass a benefit-cost test unless the social benefit of litter reduction is included in the analysis,” the Evans School Review report concluded.
Whether a BigBelly actually reduces littering to a quantifiable extent is debatable. Irrespectively, it isn’t saving actual taxpayer dollars even if there are less tangible benefits.
It might be that the BigBelly trash compactor will actually reduce costs, but I’m extremely skeptical. The predictions are too glowing and the up-front price is too high. When government partners with a private business to spend a wad of cash now for the promises of future savings, it’s more than a little suspicious.
Of course, it might be that the city is receiving federal grants to purchase the BigBellies, so we may not be absorbing all of the capital expense. The feds are notorious for spewing out grant money to projects of dubious value, like our own “streetcar to nowhere” on Loyola Avenue (which, incidentally, also features BigBelly receptacles).
However, especially if we’re paying out of pocket, we should be doing a better job of ensuring that the BigBelly will actually save money. I’ve seen little evidence of due diligence on the part of the city.
And on top of all of this, it was reported last week that the city is installing spanking new solar-powered parking meters, replacing all existing meters by the end of the year. Supposedly these new meters, which feature touchscreens and multiple-language options, cost several thousand dollars apiece. Is this the best use of scarce funds?
You can’t make a project cost-effective by slapping a solar panel on it, and the city needs to spend more time thinking about how to save money now and less time speculating about future savings.
It’s a truism that when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We’re rapidly installing new green-tech based on rosy assumptions. If we’re left with barely-functioning, heavily vandalized trash compactors dotting the streets in a few years and no savings to show for our investment, hopefully it’s a lesson we will finally learn.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.