Meet the Solar-Powered Trash Can

Seahorse Power's BigBelly holds four to five times as much garbage as conventional receptacles. And it's cleaning up with local governments

Back in 1999, during a walk along Boston's bustling Charles Street, Jim Poss decided he wanted to help his city resolve a messy problem he had encountered on almost every street corner: overflowing trash cans. At the time, Poss was working for electric-car company Selectria, so he was comfortable with solar technology and motors. He worked out a makeshift design for a garbage can fitted with a solar-powered trash compactor that he thought could reduce the amount of trash spilling onto streets (see, 8/17/06, "Turning Garbage to Gold").

His brainstorm eventually led to the creation of his 15-employee, Needham (Mass.)-based Seahorse Power, which sold its first solar-powered receptacle in 2005. Now, there are about 500 units, named BigBelly, installed around world. The selling point: Each BigBelly holds between four and five times the amount of a conventional trash can, thereby reducing the amount of trips a municipal government needs to make to collect it. By adopting his technology, Poss says that municipalities save time and money and reduce fuel consumption and wear and tear on city streets.

By improving upon the existing waste disposal management system, Seahorse Power is also attracting attention from major players in the roughly $45 billion waste-hauling industry. "The trash is still there. It's just being compacted. I think a lot of businesses would be interested in using [Seahorse's] technology," says Seahorse advisor Bill Hanley, the vice-president of sales and marketing at 2,800-employee, $550 million waste hauler Casella, which is considering investing in Seahorse.

Trial Run in Vail

Of course, breaking into such an entrenched industry has its share of challenges. Adoption of BigBelly units has been slow, but is increasing exponentially. In 2005, Seahorse had about $275,000 in sales. In its second year, it reached $1 million. "Our primary customers are municipal governments, the U.S. Forest Service, and state parks, so there's a difficulty because they often have annual sales cycles. They try a few and then buy more, and that's guaranteed to take a year," says Poss, adding that most large orders are coming from institutions like the Cincinnati Parks Dept. that have already conducted a limited trial of the BigBelly.

When Poss, 34, started the company, he was focused on making an easily replicable product, and bringing it to market quickly. "A lot of renewable-energy and clean-tech companies are in the tech-development stage, but aren't in the revenue stage. When I started the company, I wanted to do something now," says Poss (see, 3/19/07, "Head Starts for Clean-Tech Startups").

Vail Ski Resort in Colorado was Seahorse's first customer. The resort had trash cans stationed all over a huge mountain, and often would burn six gallons of diesel fuel each way on a two-hour round trip just to empty a few receptacles. Though the first BigBelly cost $10,000 to build, Poss sold three of them to Vail for $5,500 each. Now, a unit costs between $3,600 and $3,900, and the next generation of the BigBelly is already in development, as well as units for commercial sites and for recycling.

Focus on Durability

For municipal governments, the technology is catching on quickly. "Our issue is that we're all over the city and have cans in remote areas that we have to go and pick up every day. Now we can go every four or five days. That's really a no-brainer," says Gerald Checco, superintendent of the Cincinnati Park Board, which manages 800 trash cans in 150 parks throughout the city.

Checco's department bought five BigBellys on Earth Day 2006 and conducted a pilot program in an attempt to eventually reduce the city's trash collection resource consumption by half. Checco says he plans to purchase 200 to 300 more BigBellys in the next year to replace about 500 to 600 traditional cans.

Another key to Seahorse's growth is building a durable product. Last year, the company only had replaced $60 worth of parts on 400 total machines. "The machine is really simple. It has an enclosed motor that runs off a car battery and turns motorcycle chains that bring down a big metal ram. The parts themselves are reliable and overbuilt. If we didn't make a machine that was reliable, we would be in huge trouble," says Poss. "Even if it breaks down once a month, it's a pain in the neck, and nobody's buying more."

More than making his product durable, Poss says his formula for commercial longevity is environmental sustainability, especially in a world that's becoming increasingly aware of global warming (see, 4/2/07, "Court Turns Up the Heat on Global Warming"). "A carbon cap is inevitable, and how do you pick up the trash when the cost of diesel quadruples in a couple years?" asks Poss. He's confident that his company will be around long enough to help answer that question.

Click here for a slide show with profiles on more small companies that are inventing new waste-disposal methods.

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