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City Controller: Philly threw millions in the trash through 'solar' garbage bins

City's financial watchdog harshly criticized the Big Belly Solar Compactor trash cans.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz says 'big belly trash cans' wasted the taxpayers' millions. (Hayden Mitman)

Since 2009, the City of Philadelphia has spent more than $6.5 million on solar-powered BigBelly Trash Compactor trash cans, located throughout the city.

But City Controller Alan Butkovitz said Thursday that the city might have just as well thrown the money in, well, the trash.

In 2009, his office questioned the city’s purchase of 800 of the trash-compacting trash cans, which were touted as a way to save the city money on collections, as trash trucks wouldn’t have to collect as often – since these compacted trash – and, each of the $3,700 BigBelly units was supposed to communicate with the Streets Department, to let drivers know when they were full.

But, he said, there is no evidence that the city saved any money from these units. Then, seven years after the city first purchased these unit, Philadelphia bought another 300 of them.

Still, he said, in the years they have been installed on sidewalks across Philadelphia, the city hasn’t been able to provide any info that these units saved any money at all versus standard wire trashcans, which cost about $100 a piece.

“None of this was true in 2010,” said Butkovitz of claims initially made about the Bigbelly devices saving taxpayer money. “And, none of it is true now.”

In fact, Butkovitz said that not only did these solar-power trash compactors waste $6.5 million of taxpayer money for their purchase, they continue to waste money by having to be replaced when they break. And, broken or malfunctioning units, he said, take cleanup crews longer to empty than a standard trash can does.

Members of Butkovitz’s office have been documenting issues they have seen with BigBelly trash compactors throughout the city. They have released a video of their findings, to show some examples of the issues that, Butkovitz said, are apparent throughout the system.

In fact, according to Butkovitz’s office, over just a two day period, one-third of all the BigBelly trash compactors investigators encountered were not working correctly.

Overall, Butkovitz said, the BigBelly trash system is “practically useless,” claiming the city purchased expensive, high-tech equipment and wasted the devices by not properly monitoring the system and not utilizing the technology.

“This was touted as a high-tech cost savings,” said the city controller. “But, we’d like it monitored to know that’s true.”

However, some of Butkovitz’s concerns could be addressed immediately, as on Thursday, City Council was set to vote on a bill that would allow the city to generate a profit from BigBelly trash compactors through ads and would allow the Philadelphia Municipal Authority to take over maintenance costs of the units.

Results of that vote were not immediately available.