Oct 062014

Owen Courreges

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.

  23 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Can “big-bellied” robots really clean up our city for less money than people can?”

  1. actually Philadelphia collects more like 2.2 times per week, down from 17 times per week, so the author is misinformed on the collection statistics. If properly maintained, the machines are a huge savings.

    • PJ,

      I’m just going by the comptroller’s report, which is now linked in the piece. Even then, there were other predictions that were too rosy. I don’t believe BigBelly receptacles will necessarily produce the savings being pitched, and I would have preferred more publicly-accessible due diligence.

  2. I own a condo in NOLA but live in Boston where these units have made a material difference in the City’s capital and operational costs.

    Besides the reduction in capital expenses for trash trucks and the workers and benefits that attend those services, the throat/bin on these machines restricts their use for household trash, a regular problem, overflowing and blowing trash is reduced and rodent control is improved by having a closed collector.

    The difficult to quantify benefit is that elusive “quality of life” improvement each neighborhood has realized from these units.

    Finally, in Boston, where many movies are filmed (although less than in NOLA), neighborhoods have learned to hit up the film companies for compensation for the disruption their closing of streets and sidewalks sometimes causes. One of the favorite mitigation “asks” has been Big Belly units at NO cost to the City.

    Go for it NOLA, you’re a great city coming back strong. Join in the 21st century analysis which balances operational cost avoidance and quality of life improvements versus initial capital expenses.

    • RLBerman,

      I haven’t been able to verify the savings in Boston; the numbers I’m seeing are all projections, and projections are often wrong. And depending on the application, I think I’ve shown that these receptacles might not actually save money. Due diligence is needed. I can’t even find a mention of the BigBellies on the city’s website, to say nothing of a cost-benefit analysis.

      It might be that the BigBelly receptacles will save us money, but I haven’t been convinced and I’m not inclined to take anybody’s word on it.

  3. What’s missing from the analysis is that the city already has a contract with trash collection companies for residential cans 6 days a week. Every neighborhood sees a waste disposal crew at least 2 days a week.

    That means that the crews are passing the cans at least 2 times a week already. The added expense to empty the old cans should be minimal.
    Why would there be a huge savings. I doubt that when it comes time to renegotiate the contracts for waste disposal in the City of NO…that those companies are going to say…”Oh…I see that you now have Big Bellys…Give us a couple million less this year.”

    • Tim9lives,

      Thank you for pointing this out. The city really needed to study the issue first when considering future savings. If trucks are already passing the cans, the savings from not having to stop may not be as significant as predicted. The up-front cost of these compactors is extremely high, so the claim that they’ll pay for themselves needs to be closely scrutinized. I’m not seeing the scrutiny.

  4. “Buzzwords”…?
    “Robot” is like “bacon and “honey” to my childish intellect- so add just a little robot and it’s better…
    I have ones that clean my floors, answer my doors, and will call me when a sensor trips in my studio- not to mention the other tech I run, that measures and records, at 5110 Freret-

    That said, your points are valid and lets not forget Mark Morial’s Johnson Controls Contracts for LED savings, why Ray Nagin is in jail, and how our local S.C.L.C. and NAACP fought hard get their friends Garbage Contracts at twice the cost of JP and other local Gov…(?..)
    Those all had some form of automated buzzword tech robot speak, but should not close our minds to a possibly ROI on our trash, especially if there robots that don’t require 401k-health benefits- and Civil Service bribes to do their job.
    Best from an Automated 5110 Freret,

    Andy Brott

    • Andy,

      Good points all. The city has a history of mishandling garbage contracts; is it too much to ask that they release a study before making this kind of massive, up-front capital expenditure in the Quarter and DDD?

      • Studies? Talk is cheap- and experts are often the enemy and help big gov do what it does best…
        May not work for this, but for future-
        Mitigate risk with contracts that give lucrative rewards to inventors/investors on the percent of savings their new technology provides. + Just because something works in Philly does not mean it will work here. Have them put their $ were their stats/mouth is
        So- first 5 years (?) they get 30 to 50% percent (?) on what there tech saves in $. If it does what they claim they get big $, or…
        + risk vs reward would help them to find investors and hopefully promote/create new high tech jobs, that give us an ROI on trash.

        • Andy,

          A fair point. One wishes that BigBelly Solar could bear the risks of the units not working out. Alas, I’ve never heard of it being done that way.

          • Never?
            What about American Traffic Solutions contracts with the City Of New Orleans?

            Hope I have this correct (?- partially?…) but isn’t this the subcontractor from Arizona that runs and and maintains our red light and speeding cameras?
            If not- who is? and are they being paid a percentage on tickets issued?
            ATS were the ones to go to a few years back if we knew a bad crime had been committed- and demand NOPD file a written request for footage from Camera “NO109” that faces West on Freret-
            or “NO108” on the other side of the Street.
            Both of those are speeding ticket/school zone cameras, but I still say they should be used beyond just to make $ for ?
            If they are running – all could and should be used to get NOPD into the robot way of working smarter with less-
            Too bad drones are easy to take down with MG beads, as I would love to see those chasing bad guys as well…
            Best from 5110 Freret,
            Andy Brott

  5. Is reduced collection a good idea considering the pest control issues in the French Quarter? I’ve never seen one of these receptacles, so I’m just wondering if they attract pests.

    • nolagal,

      Supposedly the BigBelly units do cut down on rodents because they are completely self-contained. You have to pull open a bin to deposit trash. Open containers like those in current use may attract rodents but they’re emptied more often anyway. It is an issue, but probably not a huge one.

  6. To someone who lives elsewhere, the level of cynicism in many of these responses is over whelming. If government cannot do nothing correctly, ever, then the factual experiences of other jurisdictions are probably meaningless in this discussion.

    If every other jurisdiction who has “tried” these devices and then chose to order and deploy more is wrong, then NOLA is truly more unique as an urban entity that I have personally observed.

    If there are some places that tried these units and then got rid of them, that also would be relevant to a NOLA discussion.

    Many municipalities look to other cities for “best practices” and then try to assess the applicability to their own jurisdictions. Not every good idea from “away” will necessarily work some place else or specifically in NOLA.

    The nature of any budget, governmental, business or personal always represents a compromise as to how and where to spend limited funds. It may be completely reasonable to argue that these devices should be prioritized below street repairs, increased police salaries or other NOLA needs. I would find such an argument reasonable and possibly might agree with whatever is concluded in this blog, or in the halls of city government.

    However, this notion that every capital purchase must always comply with a strict cost/benefit analysis belies an understanding of the many intangible benefits a city gains from cleaner streets, increased property values, a better deployment of limited manpower and cost avoidance from decreased trash is a good example of the perfect preventing an attainment of the possible.

    These devices are not a panacea. They may work well in the French Quarter, but not work well in City parks, or in the reverse. Maybe they will be a welcome addition on Magazine Street but represent an expensive excess on Canal Street or in the Bywater.

    I respect that NOLA doesn’t need other people from other locales telling you how and where to deploy such devices, but it would be nice to read a more positive response to your city at least considering the possibility of applying locally some best practices already being successfully demonstrated elsewhere.

    • RL Berman,

      You’re assuming, without basis, that the BigBelly units will provide a cost savings regardless of where they’re deployed. I don’t think you’re entitled to assume that, and the city should perform due diligence to ensure that the cans will actually produce a cost savings.

      I discussed the report from Washington for exactly this reason. The report did not state that BigBelly compactors would not produce a cost savings anywhere; it merely concluded that a specific proposal to deploy them in Seattle parks would not be cost-effective. Is the same true for the French Quarter and the DDD? I don’t know, because as far as I know, no objective study was performed before putting the project out for bidding.

      I’m not saying that government cannot “do anything effectively ever.” What I’m saying is that government is supposed to study proposals closely rather than simply pushing forward based on dubious, untested assumptions. This has all the hallmarks of following the herd instead of calmly looking at the facts.

      And please, if you’re going to criticize the notion of a cost-benefit analysis, I have difficulty taking you seriously. The benefit of cleaner streets can certainly be calculated into a cost-benefit analysis provided you can actually prove that the BigBelly units actually provide substantially cleaner streets. I don’t see the evidence for that at all. Moreover, if the benefit comes exclusively from the fact that the BigBellies are closed units, that’s something we can provide for a lot less than $5,000 a pierce.

      Finally, you actually admit that the BigBelly units may work in some areas but not in others, and yet there apparently hasn’t been proper review to see where they will work and where they won’t. This is a massive capital expenditure for this city and we’re flying blind. Don’t expect me to be sanguine about that.

  7. In order for these (garbage cans) to function as intended, people must first put their trash in them. Many people in this city are still in need of proper training on step one.

    • LDG,

      It should be noted that the BigBellies also do add an extra step that may increase littering. Because you have to grab a handle (which probably becomes a bit gross after a while) and open a bin to throw away trash, some people on the fringes may balk and become more likely to litter than they are with cans where you can simply throw your trash inside without opening anything.

  8. I’ve always found the bigger problem here is getting people to put their garbage INTO trash cans. Is there a $100k robot trash can that can do that for us?

    Also, I find it interesting that our City can’t find the funds to repair all of our street lights, potholes or better compensate our police more but is quick to spend what little we have on projects like this. I guess working street lights, functional roads and safer city didn’t pass a cost-benefit analysis either…


    • uptown_rooster,

      To be fair, they are repairing the streetlights with money stolen from a verdict against Entergy owed to New Orleans ratepayers.

      • almost none of you get it. the cities don’t have to have the trucks pass by twice a day or three times a day in Philadelphia anymore. they only need to pick up when they report being full, so you only send a truck out on a day when they are yellow -90% full or Red 100% full which have an overflow capacity of up to 115% to allow the truck time to make its pick up. The stats are real in Philadelphia. the 17 pick ups per week have been reduced to approx. 2.2 pick ups per week. they are saving tons of diesel fuel purchases, diesel fuel fumes being released into the air by the diesel trucks 15 times fewer pick ups. All the garbage goes to transfer stations where it is no longer dumped into the sea or carted to land fills, but instead is separated into paper, plastic, glass and compostables, that are sold to recyclers and the city gets paid for the recycled material, instead of having to pay to get it taken away. it is a perfect solution which is win, win for everybody. Nobody lost a job, because the garbage truck personnel have gone to work in the transfer stations separating the recyclable materials. Which now are a profit center. Philadelphia has taken lemons, and made lemonade out of them. they have taken a cost center and turned it into a profit center. Oh and by the way the controllers report is false and is based on election politics to get himself into a better political position and was self serving, don’t believe everything a self serving politician tells you, especially when it makes economic sense and saves your city money.

        • PJ,

          “The stats are real in Philadelphia. the 17 pick ups per week have been reduced to approx. 2.2 pick ups per week.”

          You keep saying this, but that’s not what the Comptroller’s report said. It wasn’t even the projected goal.

          “Nobody lost a job, because the garbage truck personnel have gone to work in the transfer stations separating the recyclable materials.”

          That would seem to indicate that the money savings aren’t real. If they weren’t able to shed labor costs, where are the savings coming from? And don’t say from recycling; if it were profitable to pay people to sort trash for recyclable materials, every city would be doing it already. Heck, they could do it with or without the BigBelly bins.

          The bottom line is that this just doesn’t wash.

  9. Andy,

    I guess there’s some comparison to be made there, but there is a difference between splitting fines (the city getting a cut) and creating some kind of performance goal for the BigBelly units. At least it would be a bit more difficult, but probably not unworkable. Good point.

    • Glad you see it- because both use new tech/robot to do an AHJ basic job more efficiently. Performance goal won’t be needed with proper incentives and government hires and gets a cut for an ROI on our trash, back taxes, finds $ wasted, etc…
      “We get the government we deserve”, so your research and writing are important, but I also politely request you also dig for and find solutions specifics on how others have fixed with insensitives.

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