Has a Needham company solved the stubborn problem of urban trash?
Or is trash always gonna be a little trashy?
BigBelly turns 20 this year, and its CEO, Brian Phillips, says he expects that it will also mark a sales milestone for the company ― 100,000 units of its solar-powered, Internet-connected trash receptacles, priced between $1,900 and $4,300. The bins have a solar panel on top that powers a trash compactor that allows it to hold roughly five times the trash of a standard bin, and also provides wireless reporting on the bin’s status. You’ll find them on sidewalks around the Boston area — and in 59 countries outside the US, Phillips says.
And like most things in public spaces that take a lot of abuse, you’ll also find some of them have jammed drawers. The plastic top gets stickered, graffitied, and then sometimes covered with paint to hide the graffiti, diminishing the effectiveness of the solar panels. And while the technological miracle of a trash can with wireless connectivity is that it allows the department of public works to receive an alert when the bin is ready to be emptied, you can still encounter BigBelly cans with a red light just above the drawer, indicating that they’re full and can’t accept more garbage.
Some of BigBelly’s customers simply “haven’t maintained them,” Phillips says. And some cities don’t use the information that the cans relay to do anything differently about how they collect trash. Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline all do a good job of using the data, in Phillips’ opinion. But Boston doesn’t use it. “It’s just their decision,” he says. “They just feel like, ‘we do what we want to do,’ as much as we’ve tried to keep them engaged.” In some cities, he adds, making trash collection more efficient by focusing on areas that need collection, and skipping those that don’t, can quickly become a touchy management-labor issue. Sanitation workers may respond by wondering, “Don’t you trust us that we’re collecting the garbage?” Phillips says. City officials didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
A Marblehead native, Jim Poss, founded the company just after earning his MBA from Babson College in 2003. It’s named for one of the largest species of seahorse. Richard Kennelly signed on as a co-founder that same year, and oversaw marketing and sales.
Vail Resorts, which operates major ski areas, was the company’s first customer. At a ski mountain, Kennelly explains, having a solar-powered compactor would save trips up and down the mountain to collect trash, which typically involved diesel-powered vehicles known as snowcats. When the head of environmental initiatives at Vail Resorts heard the pitch, Kennelly recalls, “He said, ‘That’s great. I’ll take three. How much are they?’ We were thinking these would sell like hotcakes.” (Kennelly left the company in 2012, and Poss departed in 2019.)
While Vail was an easy first deal, and schools like Harvard and Boston University liked the sustainability angle of using solar power to reduce miles driven by garbage trucks, city governments were a tougher sell. In part, that was because the initial expense of buying a BigBelly bin was higher than a traditional “wire basket” that they used, even though the company argued that it would reduce the number of times trash needed to be collected.
The company grew slowly and avoided raising venture capital funding. Sales grew at about 10 or 15 percent a year, Phillips says. In December 2019, BigBelly was acquired by McCarthy Capital, an Omaha, Neb.-based private equity firm.
Phillips says that the company’s original vision was helping cities and campuses be more efficient by leveraging data from its “smart” trash can. “That’s really important to about 20 percent of our customers,” he says. But for the other 80 percent, a BigBelly receptacle is seen as a solution for “rat abatement and beautification. Once waste goes in, it doesn’t come out. It completely cleans up the town,” Phillips says. In New York City, he says, deploying BigBelly units help reduce the rat population by more than 40 percent in urban areas, and 90 percent in parks. How do they track those stats? By counting rat burrows, Phillips explains.
The company has 60 employees. Phillips expects to grow to 75 by the end of the year. The company has been introducing simpler products — without wireless connectivity or the compactor — for under $2,000. In some situations, keeping trash from flying out of open-topped cans, or keeping rats and squirrels out, may be the top priorities, Phillips says. Many of BigBelly’s units have two side-by-side stations: one for trash, and one for recyclable bottles, cans, and paper.
In the rough-and-tumble landscape of city sidewalks, BigBelly faces a wide array of assaults, from pizza boxes to aggressive bottle collectors. If someone shoves a large item like a pizza box into the unit’s drawer, it can jam — and that situation doesn’t send out a wireless report, says Scott McGrath, environmental planning director for Philadelphia’s Department of Streets. Instead, he’ll get 311 reports or e-mails about bins that are jammed. With more than 1,000 BigBelly units in the city, dealing with graffiti is “a constant challenge,” McGrath says. While the solar panels are very efficient even in shady areas, if they’re 80 percent covered with graffiti or stickers, “those units probably aren’t working,” says Phillips.
And people looking for bottles and cans to collect the nickel deposit will sometimes pry open the door on either the trash or recycling side, or both, says Rob Gogan, who oversaw the initial purchases of BigBelly units at Harvard, but has since retired.
In Philadelphia, Newton, and Brookline, sanitation departments rely on data feeds from BigBelly to adjust collections and create routes. (Phillips says you can tell when the weather warms up, as the units in front of ice cream shops like JP Licks start to need emptying more often.)
McGrath says the Department of Streets has a team of six to maintain BigBelly units. In the Center City neighborhood, he says, 700 or 800 traditional wire baskets were replaced with about 400 BigBelly units, and collection frequency went from over 30 times a week to about a half-dozen. The city went from three shifts of collections to one, but McGrath says no jobs were eliminated as part of that change. In Brookline, Commissioner of Public Works Erin Gallentine says the town’s 130 bins in parks and commercial areas have been an “effective means for the town to better manage trash collection and containment.” Some cities, like Newton, buy a maintenance contract to take care of the bins; others, like Cambridge and Boston, do it with their own workers, Phillips explains.
As BigBelly approaches 100,000 units sold, Phillips says, the company is growing much faster than it did in its earliest years — by roughly 25 percent in 2022. “In the past, we were selling solar-powered compactors, which was like selling everybody a Tesla Model S, and finding the whole market can’t afford it,” he says. “We realized that they don’t all need to be smart, and they don’t all need to be compactors.” By reducing the price of its lowest model to below $2,000, BigBelly is competitive with high-end ornamental bins, he said. “It’s getting into areas that have never used it in the past, like fast food restaurants, and inside airports.” One new product that the company has been testing is a bin designed to collect compostable waste, like food scraps.
In recent years, BigBelly has been navigating shortages of the microchips it needs to build new units, some of which are also used by automakers, who saw sales boom during the pandemic. But as the company marks its 20th birthday, Phillips says the business of trash has never been better: “We can’t get them out the door fast enough.”
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.