A pile of tied up plastic bags filled with trash, leaning against a square can and a street sign at 8th and Arch.
Dumped trash next to a Bigbelly can in Center City in March 2020. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

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Litter and trash collection are among the top five things Philadelphians want fixed immediately, according to a list of the top 311 complaints made last year. 

A new kind of trash can might be able to help.

In a recent poll I did on Twitter asking how to solve the litter problem, people suggested increasing the numbers of trash cans in the city, ensuring the cans are changed out on a consistent basis, and issuing fines for people who litter. 

Some of Philly’s current trash cans are Bigbelly units that first arrived in 2009 before growing to over 1,300 solar-powered, sensor-equipped cans across the city. They reportedly cost about $3,700 per can, and are supposed to provide real-time data and notify authorities when they are full. A 2017 City Controller’s Office audit, however, found that the sensors and data reporting didn’t actually work. Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams disagreed with its findings, and the city renewed the contract. 

If the new mayor decides to shop for a new trash can supplier when the contract ends, I suggest a different option to address the litter problem: underground or hydraulic trash cans. 

Why underground trash cans? 

This would make sense near parks, business corridors, high foot traffic areas, and even apartment buildings. More space allows for fewer pick-ups while not resulting in overflowing cans, thus keeping the area around the can clean. 

I priced them out, and from a company called Van Dyk Recycling Solutions (with which I have no relationship), cans like these start at around $10,000 each. That’s over twice as much as the Big Belly can, but I believe Philly should at least think about it. 

One thing I love about these cans is their change-out time. From start to finish it takes no longer than 3 minutes to empty them. As a former sanitation worker, I know all too well how people feel when they get stuck behind a trash truck on their way to work. 

The underground cans go about 10 feet down and can hold up to 6.5 cubic yards — that’s about one ton of trash. 

Could these cans survive in Philly with its old infrastructure and cold winters? Since they exist all over the world, including near the Arctic Circle in Norway, yes on the weather front. 

But we would have to be very careful where we place them. Digging in grass is a lot easier than sidewalk, where there’s already a lot of infrastructure underground. 

Van Dyk also makes above-ground units. Like Bigbellies, they use lasers to calculate how full the can is and, like the Bigbelly cans, come with an online cloud system the Streets Department can use to get real time updates.

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Unlike the Bigbelly cans, they attach directly to a truck. The city might already own a truck compatible with the containers, since they don’t require a specific brand.

I would love for the new mayor to commission a pilot of about five units in a litter-filled area of the city. They could partner with Penn or Drexel to conduct a study of how much litter is reduced by these new tools. 

Residents deserve for the city to try everything it can to keep Philadelphia clean.

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Terrill Haigler (aka Ya Fav Trashman)

Terrill Haigler is a former Philadelphia sanitation worker turned anti-litter activist.