Officials in Santa Cruz, California, are proud of their vibrant downtown district. Lined with movie theaters, restaurants and shops, the area is a magnet for pedestrians — and for trash. In a few key areas, municipal trash cans were filling faster than sanitation crews could empty them. Even after adding a night crew to perform a second pickup each day, cans still regularly overflowed.

“What we found was a lot of times it is just pizza boxes or cups that aren't compressed and take up a lot of space,” says Santa Cruz Director of Public Works Mark Dettle. “[The cans] fill up and then people start stacking a lot of stuff around them. It just creates a mess.”

A solution presented itself when Dettle and his colleagues discovered a solar-powered trash compactor in use at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a historic amusement park that also has to contend with large volumes of trash. Designed and manufactured by Needham, Mass.-based Seahorse Power Co., the BigBelly Cordless Compaction System automatically compacts trash when a light sensor detects a preset fill level. This allows the unit to hold 10 times as much as a typical trash can, limiting the number of pickups required. External status lights glow green for “ready,” yellow for “almost full” and red for “full,” and the unit can wirelessly signal workers that it is ready for emptying. All functions are powered by solar cells on top of the unit.

After Dettle saw the BigBelly again at a trade show, he scheduled a one-week trial. Four units were deployed along Pacific Avenue, one of the busiest parts of downtown Santa Cruz. Dettle's staff observed how the cans performed and tried to gauge public reaction to the unit, which was generally positive.

The trial revealed that the cans could go up to four days before requiring emptying. But at that point, Dettle says the bags weighed nearly 60 pounds, putting an undue strain on collection workers. “It was overflowing, and there were liquid issues that we had to deal with. Realistically, we felt that we could go two days without a problem, possibly three.”

While the performance of the unit impressed Santa Cruz officials, there were some lingering issues. “One of the things that first jumped out at us is we're pretty strong on recycling, and there really wasn't a recycling component,” Dettle notes. “So we were a little concerned that people would start throwing recyclables in there.” The city has worked with the vendor to develop a basket attachment for the BigBelly that will facilitate the collection of recyclables.

Satisfactory handling of liquids was another sticking point. “We have a lot of coffee shops and if someone throws a latte or something in there, we don't want that making a big mess underneath the unit,” Dettle says. In response, the vendor is working on a liquid containment system.

But overall, Dettle says he and his colleagues were pleased with the technology. “Obviously the guy who didn't have to empty them at night was thrilled.”

Santa Cruz plans to acquire four BigBelly units and is encouraging nearby cities like Capitola to participate in a group purchase. They will join cities such as New York and Boston, which have installed up to 40 of the devices. Dettle says the unit is ideal for municipalities looking to increase efficiency and reduce strain on sanitation staff.

“We're looking at ways to reduce the manpower that has to deal with the demands of the city. Then we have some growth capacity there. If we have a major event or something, we're still not adding a cost, which is good.”