Solar Compactors Make Mincemeat of Trash The Chicago Park District is trying out new solar-powered trash compactors on some beaches this summer. The effort might solve three growing problems at once: unsightly garbage, seagull droppings and high gasoline prices.

Solar Compactors Make Mincemeat of Trash

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This ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Garbage in the sand, overflowing trashcans, big smelly gas-guzzling garbage trucks - not the things that you'd want to find at the beach. And in Chicago, they're trying to eliminate those problems by harnessing the same thing that draws so many people to the beach - the sun.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: I'm standing at North Avenue Beach on a hot sunny afternoon. And there are hundreds of people making full use of the beach. There are kids and adults playing in the water, kids building sand castles in the sand, but most people are just laying out on beach blankets and beach towels, soaking up the rays. It's almost perfect, but beachgoers in Chicago say there is one problem.

Mr. DAN QUINN: I think a lot of times, the beaches do get dirty.

SCHAPER: Dan Quinn of suburban Burr Ridge watches his 4-year-old daughter, Ava(ph), splash around in the clear shallow water while a few yards up the beach, some Ring-billed gulls try to eat the garbage they find in the sand.

Mr. QUINN: In fact, I just saw a seagull picking a lime over there. Someone must have dumped off from a margarita they had last night.

SCHAPER: These birds are a real problem. Their droppings contribute to high levels of E. coli bacteria in the water, forcing the Chicago Park District to periodically ban swimming on some beaches. And because garbage is the bird's main food source, when the garbage cans fill up and overflow, the gulls have their own buffet. To solve that problem, the Chicago Park District bought what are called BigBellies for this and a handful of other beaches.

Ms. ELLEN SARGENT (Deputy Director of Natural Resources, Chicago Park District): A BigBelly is a trashcan.

SCHAPER: Ellen Sargent is the deputy director of Natural Resources for the Chicago Park District.

Ms. SARGENT: These trashcans have a solar-powered trash compactor in them, though.

SCHAPER: That trash compactor smashes down the garbage, reducing its volume, so these receptacles don't have to be emptied nearly as often. The BigBellies are fully enclosed so there's no overflow problem. And they're heavy and anchored down so they can't be blown or knocked over, limiting the amount of trash strewn across the beach, and hopefully forcing the gulls and pigeons to go elsewhere to find food.

Marcel Washington(ph), the park district's north lakefront maintenance foreman, says BigBellies are easy to use, with a pull-down handle on a small door at the top of the device.

Mr. MARCEL WASHINGTON (Maintenance Foreman, Chicago Park District): Once they put the trash in, they close the door. Much like a mailbox. The design is very, very similar to a mailbox. The mail goes in, but you can't get to the mail. The trash drops down.

SCHAPER: The olive-colored BigBelly kind, of looks like a mailbox, too, but with a solar panel on top that recharges a 12-volt battery. Washington says garbage fills up the container until it reaches the level of an electric beam near the top.

Mr. WASHINGTON: That will trigger the ram, which compacts it.

SCHAPER: Washington demonstrates how the flat metal foot, or ram as he calls it, smashes the garbage down, and will do it again and again until it's full of compacted trash. This 46-gallon BigBelly can hold more than 200 gallons of regular garbage. And the park district saves money by making fewer trips to the beach with the city's big, smelly, inefficient garbage trucks.

The device is the brainchild of Jim Poss, a Massachusetts engineer who had been working on electric cars.

Mr. JIM POSS (Inventor, BigBelly): The idea hit me probably about six years ago, when I was walking down a busy street in Boston. And I noticed that all the garbage cans were overflowing with mounts of garbage strewing on to the streets. And it just hit me that there's a better way.

SCHAPER: Poss created a company called Seahorse Power, developed the BigBelly, and sold the first unit in 2005. Now, there are BigBellies on street corners in Boston, Baltimore, New York and in some state and national parks as sales for the small company start to take off. BigBellies costs nearly $4,000 each. But Chicago and other cities hope they ultimately save money by tapping a resource the beach has plenty of.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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