Solar trash can experiment takes off in West Ridge

West Ridge will be cleaner and greener when the 1.5-mile stretch of Devon Avenue from Damen to Kedzie gets 20 more solar-powered trash compactors this spring.

After a one-year trial with four of the cordless units, the self-taxed special service area (SSA) business owners have decided it is worth $80,000 to purchase the additional receptacles at a cost of $4,000 each, says Amie Zander, executive director of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce.

"We're trying to get rid of all the other cans that the city provides," says Zander, explaining that the existing bins weren't able to handle the volume of trash even with six-day, private pick-up in addition to the city's daily collections.

Officials at Massachusetts-based BigBelly Solar manufacture the mailbox-like containers to handle 180 gallons at a time by pressing the air out of the rubbish with a self-charged compactor.  Company officials describe the product as the "first and only" of its kind.

A regular can holds only 30 gallons, says Henrietta Gates, BigBelly's director of business development. That is 3,000 gallons of additional capacity for Devon Avenue alone once the snow subsides and the new units can be anchored to the sidewalks.  Currently, Gates says, Chicago has 50 of her company's solar compactors in parks, on beaches and in 10 special service areas, increasing overall containment capacity by 7,500 gallons.

Gates says the solar cans eliminate litter and reduce emissions while saving the city money on truck maintenance, gasoline and man-hours. 

"A garbage truck gets around three miles per gallon and produces a lot of pollutants," she says. With the new compactors, the Devon Avenue SSA "could reduce pick-ups to twice a week."

 While traditional bins are thought obsolete for the high-traffic area, Zander said they won't be dumped. 

"Our plan is to replace existing cans and move the old ones to new locations in the neighborhood," she says. Furthermore, private services will continue, costing the SSA participants $50,000 a year.

Environmental maintenance includes sidewalk, curb and gutter sweeping and will stretch outside the SSA to the blocks north and south of Devon between Leavitt and Sacramento starting in April as a courtesy to those neighbors throughout the summer, Zander says.

Only city waste collectors have sensor keys to open the 50-inch-tall trash compactors. Color codes tell city drivers whether it's time to collect trash, with red meaning full, yellow almost full, and green indicating that no pick-up is necessary.  West Ridge route collectors are instructed to pick up on yellow.  They wave the key, the trash is compacted one last time, they open the compartment, and the bag is ready for disposal.

Extolling the virtues of the boxy, front-opening repositories, Zander says in addition to eliminating the blight of strewn trash resulting from wind and animal mischief, "they even work in the shade or when covered with snow." 

On the downside, she says, the containers have been mistaken for postal receptacles or ignored altogether, despite the graphic illustration alerting passersby of their purpose.

However, Devon Avenue business owner Susan Patel says, "People are using them," and not for disposing of big boxes as they would attempt with open vessels.  One of the existing four solar-topped cans is across from Patel Brothers Handicrafts and Utensils. 

"I like the fact that there is one in front of my store, but some corners are lacking them, so people think it's okay to drop garbage on the ground," Patel says.  "They're great for the Devon community. I hope we get more. "