Big Belly Solar UK wants to take its bins from being simply a waste solution to part of the Smart Cities movement. Andrea Lockerbie finds out how councils are using them and how the firm plans to expand
Using technology to help a city run more efficiently and effectively is essentially at the heart of the Smart Cities movement – a market worth an estimated $400bn (£244bn) globally.
As well as fitting neatly into this futuristic space, Big Belly Solar UK is also addressing the current issue councils face of finding cost savings. Big Belly’s waste bins use solar energy to compact waste and monitor fill levels, so that collections are made from the bins only when needed (see box).
This means that each bin collects a better payload. It also helps cut the cost of street litter collection associated with over-full bins.
David Jackson, director at Big Belly Solar UK, explains that Bath saw a 40% reduction in street litter after introducing the bins, adding that most litter on streets is either blown out of a bin or removed by scavenging birds.
To combat this, the Big Belly units are sealed, so vermin cannot get in and litter cannot blow out.
Nottingham City Council was one of the first to trial the bins and then order them. Its previous city centre estate of bucket bins was being emptied around 4,500 times a month. But since introducing Big Belly bins, this figure has been cut to 250, bringing with it cost savings in collections and plastic sacks use.
“The collection frequency is typically reduced about 90%,” Jackson says. “The average cost reduction is about 70%. We provide the bins on a managed service basis, so all the council has to do is encourage people to put rubbish into them, and then the council empty them. Everything else is taken care of. The charge for that compared with the savings [means that] units pay for themselves typically in 12 months,” he explains.
Local authorities are currently the main target audience. Trials with more than 100 have been run and around 40 in the UK and Republic of Ireland now use the bins. The company has also seen interest from the NHS, for use in car parks and as a method of reducing the number of collections that have to be made from wards for standard residual waste.
“Our real aim, our five-year aim would be to be in a position where we are saving the country £0.5bn a year in terms of waste collection cost of street waste. And we believe we can do that by converting about 10% of the UK’s bin stock to Big Belly.”
David Jackson, director, Big Belly Solar UK
The bins can be plugged in and used indoors which offers opportunities in high traffic areas such as shopping centres and sports stadiums. Another opportunity is to have a floating estate of units for use at events.
A number of higher education facilities have also bought Big Belly bins, including universities such as Dundee, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Warwick and Trinity College in Dublin.
Nottingham, Bournemouth and Bath councils were its first three prime targets, and all went on to place orders after trials.
There are now around 130 units in Nottingham and around 60 each in Bath and Bournemouth, although all plan to expand on this. Big Belly is now the only street bin used by the City of London.
Jim Graham, City of London Corporation’s assistant cleansing director, says: “The system has allowed the corporation to virtually eliminate the problem of overflowing bins and manage the service resource more effectively. Time saved through using the Big Belly Solar units has been ploughed back into other areas of the service and reduced the need to employ extra temporary staff during peak times of the year.”
Jackson explains that, on average, clients save about £450 per month per bin, adding: “We know that Nottingham is exceeding £600,000 a year gross savings as result of these bins as a solution – just in its city centre.”
As each unit has a Wifi modem in it to communicate its fullness status, the company is looking to develop this feature so that Wifi hotspots can be created and joined with city networks.
Jackson explains: “It provides a unique opportunity to fill gaps in council networks, where perhaps they can’t get a mains-powered Wifi transmitter. Our solar-powered units can go into parks and spaces where there is no current [Wifi] coverage.”
The company is also looking at digital advertising screens for councils, and is in negotiations with some about this option alongside Wifi hotspots.
“The thinking is for advertising, but it would also allow local authorities to have their own messaging: advertising their own activities, local amenities and so on,” Jackson explains.
Digital adverts would be changed remotely. The idea would be for Big Belly to manage any advertising for the council, taking the risk and sharing the revenue. “We are trying to hold the hand of the local authority, to maximise the savings they make and any revenue making opportunities, without them incurring any additional costs,” says Jackson.
This move is a deliberate strategy: “We want to take Big Belly from being purely a waste solution, to being part of that Smart Cities movement and enabling it to become a communications hub via Wifi and digital screens. All this would be done in an environmentally positive manner by using solar power to drive the whole process.”
As well as for general waste, the units can be used for recycling. City of London has been trialling the use of two units together: one for recycling and one for waste, with favourable results.
Jackson says: “Off the back of that we are looking to promote the recycling aspects of the unit as well, which could also generate an income stream for local authorities in selling that recyclate.”
He calls the units “nothing less than a revolution”, and says users are evangelical about success rates, positive public response and litter reduction.
“My background is not in waste, it is in business finance. But having come across the product three years ago, I was knocked over by the simplicity of it and the truly impressive results. Who would have thought you could take something like a bin and completely evolve it?” he says.
“Big Belly is almost one of those Victor Kiam things [the entrepreneur famous for his advert saying “I liked the shaver so much I bought the company”]. We came across it and thought, we have just got to buy the business.”.
How Big Belly bins work
A solar panel on the top of the unit generates electricity which is collected in a battery. That battery powers an internal compactor in the unit.
Waste is fed into the unit via a hopper. When it gets to certain level inside the chamber, it breaks ‘electric eyes’ which trigger the compactor to compress the waste.
On average, six to eight times the amount of waste can be collected inside a Big Belly unit in plastic sacks compared to a street bin of similar size. A non-compacting unit is available, aimed at glass collection.
The bin reports back via Wifi modem to a server. Users log into a system to see the status of their bins on Google maps, using a traffic light system for each unit: green - doesn’t need emptying; amber - bin is 85% full so should be emptied; red - over-full.
The electric eyes measure the depth of the litter and the units also have a pressure sensitive base, effectively weighing the contents, to ensure the unit is not being ‘tricked’ into thinking it is full when it isn’t.
The bins have a steel chassis and frame and the side panels are made out of recycled car bumpers. Units can be joined together if more than one is used.