By Ben Butterworth, FES '14
How can waste collection – one of world’s least efficient and resource-intensive industries – leverage the technology of the 21st century to become more green?
The innovative thinkers behind BigBelly Solar have a few ideas. BigBelly Solar is a Boston-based company founded in 2003 with the goal of making waste collection more efficient. It has developed new, cutting edge waste and recycling containers that utilize technology like solar power, internal sensors, and wireless communication. These tools allow the containers to self-compact and take the guess work out of when to empty the receptacles.
Historically, waste collection has relied on individuals spending hours driving around to check or empty every container for a particular municipality, university or corporation. Now - through BigBelly’s cloud-based CLEAN Management Console and a quick glance at a smartphone - clients can receive real-time data on which containers need emptying and drastically reduce the time and gas required to collect waste. That’s good news for a client’s carbon footprint and its bottom line.
On Tuesday, February 5th, the Yale Center for Business and the Environment sponsored a lunch conversation with Robert Kutner of BigBelly Solar. Kutner is BigBelly’s Regional Sales Manager for the Northeast and is currently focused on expanding the distribution of the Big Belly System – particularly on college campuses. The company presently has 5,000 components installed worldwide and approximately 200 clients, but there is still room for growth.
Kutner pointed out that the long sale cycle – the time between first engaging a client and finalizing a sale – is one of the main difficulties facing his company. In particular, working with colleges and universities to locate a source of funding for the relatively high up-front cost of installing a BigBelly System can prove difficult and time consuming. Another hurdle facing the company is the perceived threat of the BigBelly System to the jobs of individuals employed in waste collection – particularly within municipalities with strong labor unions. Finally, the company finds itself battling against the inertia of an industry that has been operating in roughly the same way for decades. As Kutner explains, “I like to say I’m competing against the status quo.”
Despite these challenges, the BigBelly System has well-defined benefits that help the product sell itself. The reduced time necessary to complete waste collection frees up employees to contribute in other areas and some universities have reported a return on investment in less than a year through the reduction of costs associated with man power, vehicle maintenance and gas savings. The fully enclosed design of BigBelly components also eliminates the numerous problems created by wind, snow, rain and rodents.
Perhaps its most convincing selling point is that the installation of these trash and recycling containers provides tangible, highly-visible evidence that a university or other organization is committed to their green mission. With schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University having already installed BigBelly Systems, there is a certain amount of pressure on schools to keep up with the curve when it comes to sustainability. Hopefully colleges and universities – like Yale – will see the potential in leveraging BigBelly’s unique technological offerings to revolutionize their waste collection systems.
Benjamin Butterworth is a first year master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Prior to Yale, he worked at Efficiency First, a nonprofit trade association that serves as an advocate for the energy efficient home retrofitting industry. He works on the Blueprint for Efficiency project at CBEY and is interested in energy efficiency and renewable energy development.