Newly upgraded Big Belly solar trash compactor bins on North 5th Street in Olney — with trash dumped next to them. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

North Philly just got dozens of new high-tech BigBelly trash cans, and the city says they’re better than before. 

The 65 new solar-powered compactor bins have better batteries, sensors, software, and radio transmitters to alert the Streets Department when they’re getting full and need to be emptied, per Commissioner Carlton Williams. 

They also have foot pedals that let people open them without using their hands, reducing the ick factor and encouraging passers-by to drop their litter in the receptacle rather than on the street.

Terrill Haigler, aka Ya Fav Trashman, a former city sanitation worker and anti-litter crusader, said being able to use a foot pedal rather than a handle “makes a world of difference,” especially since the pandemic.

Even so, it’s unclear if the new cans will actually help reduce litter.

In the business district on North 5th Street in Olney, where older versions of the cans were first installed several years ago, some business owners praised the BigBelly units, some were completely unaware, and some criticized them for actually attracting more trash.

“After the trash cans were installed, that’s when people started piling up trash,” said Doreen Burrows, who has a BigBelly on the sidewalk in front of her real estate office at 5700 N. 5th St. “People started unloading their garbage there. They don’t try to stuff it in. Contractor bags, mattresses, box springs, suitcases, you name it.”

The city has been rolling out upgraded BigBellys citywide over the past few years, with 483 currently installed. Officials plan to eventually have the new features on all of the city’s 1,042 cans. They reportedly cost $6,000 each.

Some say those upgrades won’t solve chronic BigBelly problems. 

In Old City, many of the cans are busted, overflowing, and surrounded by trash bags, said Job Itzkowitz, executive director of the Old City District. He said the city’s failure to empty them frequently enough, repair them, or even take advantage of the capacity alerts threatens to erase any advantages provided by the improved units in Olney. 

“My concern is that in a couple of years, they’re going to be in the same position that the ones in [Old City] are,” Itzkowitz said.

BigBelly trash receptacles in Old City during August 2023. (Courtesy Job Itzkowitz)

Feedback on the BigBellies from business districts and community groups has been positive, according to the Streets Department, and the city regularly gets requests for more of them.

However, residents may “take advantage” of the bins and place trash next to them, turning them into “an eyesore and nuisance,” acknowledged Streets Dept. spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton. 

“Unfortunately, in some neighborhoods the litter baskets become magnets for illegal dumping,” McCarty-Skelton said. “The hope is that because these baskets are a highly visible, interactive part of the streetscape, that people would be less inclined to illegally dump but respect the investment by communities to improve the neighborhoods.”

A decade-long upgrade

When the city first installed 300 BigBellys in 2009, their main selling point was millions in projected cost savings, as well as the benefits of having a closed container instead of the open bins the city had been using.

Thanks to built-in compactors, city officials said, the new receptacles could be emptied about five times a week instead of 19. The cans would sense when they were full and send a message to the Streets Department, which would enable more efficient routing of trash trucks. Over 10 years the city would save $12.9 million, according to BigBelly Solar, the Massachusetts-based manufacturer.

But residents soon started complaining about the dirty handles, as well as people dumping household trash around the cans. 

The city convinced BigBelly to develop a foot-pedal version — Philly making waves! — but warned that the upgraded containers would only be installed when the originals needed replacing, which could be years away. Many areas, like South Street, still have the old cans.

In 2010, then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz put out a critical report on the bins. He said the city had overpaid for them, documented constant breakdowns city workers weren’t trained to fix, and reported they were being emptied 10 times per week, twice as often as projected.

City officials responded that his report contained inaccuracies and that the BigBellys had definitely saved the city money.

A BigBelly with foot pedal, installed in 2017. (Shannon Wink/Billy Penn)

Butkovitz put out another report in 2017 saying most of the problems remained, and noting that the capacity-monitoring software system had been down for most of the cans for months. 

At the same time, Streets Commissioner Williams said maintenance costs had turned out to be much higher than expected, in part because people vandalized the cans and stole handles and other parts to sell as scrap.

‘Not living up to potential’

The BigBelly does have fans. 

“I see it every day when I pass on the street,” said Justin Lee, owner of Fern Rock Hardware on North 5th. “It’s a beautiful design and a good size. It matches well with buildings and the neighbors — it kind of beautifies the area.”

The main problem is they can’t handle demand, Lee said. “There is more trash than the capacity of the cans. On some blocks, there’s too much trash, so you cannot hold it all.”

There are anti-dumping messages on some of the cans, said McCarty-Skelton, the Streets Dept. spokesperson.

“The Big Belly Program is a partnership between the community and the city. The city provides the baskets and makes regular collections to empty them. We need neighbors to not misuse the litter baskets and help to keep areas clean,” she said.

Dumping is common next to the BigBelly trash cans on North 5th Street, says real estate professional Doreen Burrows. (Courtesy Doreen Burrows)

Old City District’s Itzkowitz, as well as the Philadelphia BID Alliance, which represents business improvement districts across Philadelphia, say there just aren’t enough receptacles. Philly should have trash containers on every block, they say.

Haigler, of Ya Fav Trashman fame, wishes the city would switch over to a more effective container system, like one that stores trash in underground units. But if Philly is going to stick with BigBelly, he agrees with Lee that it needs far more. 

“You can’t have them 300 yards apart,” Haigler said. “They need to be in proximity to where business corridors are, where foot traffic is — every other corner, versus every nine corners.”

Also important, he added: hiring enough sanitation workers to empty and maintain the cans, which would encourage people to use them. “The biggest issue with the BigBellies is that they’re not consistently changed out to the point where we don’t see them full,” Haigler said. 

That’s the biggest bother to Itzkowitz, who said he regularly receives complaints and photos of overflowing cans around Old City that are broken, vandalized, and surrounded with household trash from the neighborhood’s many AirBnbs. 

He’s asked the city to maintain them better or just completely remove them from the neighborhood. 

“The BigBelly system,” said Itzkowitz, “is certainly not living up to its potential.”

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...