400 Recycling Compactors Coming to Commercial Areas

The city will install 400 new solar powered trash compactors to promote recycling, but they won't be in residential areas.

Next month, the city will install 400 new solar powered trash compactors to promote recycling in Boston. But chances are they won’t be anywhere near your Charlestown home.

The Big Belly compactors will go in “high traffic areas” such as Downtown Crossing and Fenway, but they won’t line residents’ streets—at least not at first. It’s also likely they’ll be kept out of public parks due to the advertisements on the cans, which is part of a bartering agreement that allows the city to have the barrels for free.

“How do we expand this into the neighborhoods?” At-Large City Councilor Felix Arroyo asked during a public hearing on Tuesday.  “I think everybody knows where the Big Bellies will end up.”

A big step toward city-wide single stream recycling

With the 400 new receptacles, this is the first time the city has addressed public recycling on such a broad scale, said Matthew Mayrl, chief of staff for the Boston Public Works Department.

Installation will start in August, and the 400 compactors will be in addition to the city’s existing 175 Big Bellies. About the size of a mailbox, they use solar panels to stay charged. Every 30 seconds an infrared light shoots out of the top of the barrel to detect trash, and presses down any debris. When they get to be about 70 percent full, a wi-fi signal goes out to Public Works, alerting the department to come empty the barrel.

Paper, plastics, metals and fibers can all be placed in them as part of the single stream recycling process, but avoid throwing away food and other non-recyclable objects.

The compactors will decrease overflowing trash, and save service expenses since workers will know exactly when to come empty them, Mayrl said. They cost about $4,000 a piece, but the city has teamed up with the company Vector Media, which has purchased the compactors in exchange for being able to place ads on them.

If the partnership is successful, he said there’s a mutual agreement to expand to more Boston neighborhoods.

“Over time we want this to be available in every part of the city,” Mayrl said.

Historic districts

But the logistics of when and how seem fuzzy.

“I love this idea, by the way, but I’ve heard concerns from residents who live in historic areas about bringing public advertising to their neighborhoods,” Arroyo said.  

All the compactors would have to be approved by the appropriate landmark and historical commissions, Mayrl said. He also mentioned the possibility of moving the existing, ad-free compactors to historic areas.

Public parks

Putting them in parks, however, raises similar concerns on a broader scale.

“I suspect some parks would not mind having advertising if it meant a cleaner park,” Arroyo said

But Boston Parks and Recreation Commissioner Antonia Pollak disagreed.

“I think it opens up Pandora’s Box,” she said “Somewhere in the world there needs to be an advertising free zone.”

They city is also exploring options beyond the Big Belly trash receptacles. Steve Holland, CEO of the company Free Green Can, talked about recycling challenges Chicago has overcome, and provided advice for Bostonians.

His message mirrored Arroyo’s push.

“If you really want city-wide recycling,” Holland said, “you have to be everywhere.”


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