Moving from Burlington, Vermont to Boston, Massachusetts meant a lot of change for me, the most immediately noticeable being more crowds, more tall buildings, and more startled close calls when trying to cross the busy streets. One small thing, though, was an abundance of these wherever I went:
They're Big Belly solar trash compactors, although being a simple country boy I didn't know this right away. Basically, they're public trash bins that compact the trash that the receive. They have a hatch on the front, a solar panel on top, and a few blinking lights to indicate readiness to receive trash.
The compactor collects all of its own energy for compaction, and it does so either rarely or silently; I've never heard one make any noise. The device was interesting, but at first I didn't understand what good it did-- after all, compacting the trash doesn't make any of it disappear.
Compacting the trash is good for a few reasons. Obviously, it makes the bins able to hold much more trash than a normal bin, which means that they have to be emptied only about a fifth as often as regular bins. This saves the city money on collection services (a city can spend one to four thousand dollars per year per bin on garbage collection), and it also means 80 percent less garbage truck-associated greenhouse gas emissions. Less traffic congestion too, and the garbage takes up less room at the landfill.
This isn't just a Boston item, either. The first one was installed at a ski place called Vail Resorts in Colorado in 2004, and since then they’ve spread to 46 states and 30 countries. The whole project reminds me of a more feasible version of a slightly overexcited idea I heard-- to pave roads with solar panels and use them to power our homes.
But this product doesn't overreach like that, it's not catastrophically expensive and it won't take ten or twenty years for us to see it. Going green is so often a choice between snubbing the environment and spending more money, but with a clever product like this we can have it both ways-- cheap, and green too.