Bigbelly’s Talking Trash Cans

Cities are getting smarter – starting with their garbage bins

“Smart city” is a hot concept that is hard to identify in our everyday lives. Broadly, smart city is the idea of using connected technologies and data collection (aka Internet of Things) to make city and municipal operations more efficient [1]. Promising areas for development are electricity and water distribution, transportation, buildings, and city services.


Founded in 2003, Bigbelly is a Boston-based manufacturer of solar-powered waste stations. Each receptacle features a sensor that measures fill levels, and communicates this information to city/facility managers. Combined with the built-in compactor that allows Bigbelly to hold up to eight times the waste of a standard bin, municipalities are able to vastly increase the efficiency of their waste management operations. That means less running time of garbage trucks and crews, and less emission of CO2 and other tail-pipe pollutants. Bigbelly has deployed 30,000 waste stations across 47 countries [2], and is especially notable for its presence on the Harvard Business School campus dating back to a 2009 partnership with the university.



Bigbelly receptacle (


The biggest issue with implementation of Bigbelly waste stations, and any other smart city initiative, is alignment between the technology and the city manager. Bigbelly stations produce a lot of data, and it’s up to the end user to make good use of the data. This issue played out in Philadelphia in 2010, when, after being credited by the mayor for saving the city $1 million a year, the Bigbelly program was blasted in a report by the City Controller. The Controller’s report highlighted the following issues:

  • Crews were not trained to operate the new machines.
  • Compactors were emptied on average 61 percent of the time, even though the alert status said they did not need to be collected.
  • The night-shift trash collection crews did not have access to the system that wirelessly reports when each trash can is full. They serviced each trash can each night regardless of fill level. [3]


City managers need to view smart city initiatives as a full-scale change to operations, not a one-time investment. One idea to address this issue is the creation of a smart city hub within a city management organization. The hub could sit across functional groups – such as waste management and road maintenance – in order to integrate new streams of data and ensure that operations reflect the capabilities of newly installed technologies, thus capturing the ROI of various smart city initiatives.


Facing its next stage of growth, Bigbelly has recently embarked on a dramatic shift in strategy. Whereas they previously sold machines and their connectivity under an upfront purchase model, the company is transitioning to a subscription-based model under the guise of “anything as a service” (XaaS). Under the subscription model, Bigbelly bins will offer Wi-Fi access, digital advertising, and additional data on environmental conditions such as air purity.


The challenge for Bigbelly in successfully implementing its subscription strategy will be convincing its government and municipal customers, with notoriously bureaucratic procurement processes, to get onboard. Bigbelly will also likely face privacy and data protection concerns as a company known for manufacturing trash bins becomes a critical node in a robust information transfer system [4].


So far smart city has been more hype than results, but the hype is of a large scale. A 2014 report from Frost & Sullivan predicts that the smart city market will grow to $1.57 trillion by 2020. Meanwhile, Q3 2016 saw $741 million of venture capital investment, the most money since 2014 [5]. Smart cities show promise for entrepreneurs, investors, and citizens, but success will ultimately depend on innovative, holistic, and forward-thinking implementation by municipal and city governments – a difficult prospect.



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  1. Marr, Bernard. “How Big Data and the Internet of Things Create Smarter Cities”. Forbes. 19 May 2015.
  2. 2016.
  3. Breidenbach, Michelle. “Philadelphia’s $4,000 Big Belly trash cans a messy waste, city controller says”. 24 July 2013.
  4. Blanding, Michael. “Bigbelly’s Big Bet on the Digital Trash Can”. HBS Working Knowledge. 29 February 2016.
  5. Mittelman, Melissa. “Cleantech Rebrands as ‘Smart City’ to Attract Venture Dollars”. Bloomberg. 28 October 2016.


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Student comments on Bigbelly’s Talking Trash Cans

  1. I love it. And I imagine the cities’ initial challenges adopting the new way of thinking can be overcome without too much friction. Anything that can help us humans make smarter decisions around how we spend our time is great. Properly incentivizing the trash workers to only empty receptacles when required may be a good way to start (i.e. not pay them hourly). I think about a trash compactor my parents have, and how there is no way on earth I’m emptying it every day regardless of whether or not it’s full. I’d rather be doing a million other things than taking out the trash – which is why we got one in the first place! So if we can get the trash workers to think with that mindset, we may be golden there.

    The same logic goes for any “smart city” technology that requires a change in peoples’ behaviors. As long as fears of job security can be managed and the cities are willing to take on more meaningful work to replace the work that technology is now controlling, I agree with the aggressive growth projections of Frost & Sullivan.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Amazing article. Very insightful. Unfortunately I was not surprised by how the bureaucracy hinders the evolution of our society. But this is a question that always come up with technology related issues. How we prevent resistance to change from happening. Probably this is an extra challenge companies, especially the ones working with governments have to solve. The key lesson for me reading this post is that: An idea is not enough to solve an issue, we need to make sure every stakeholder is onboard with the solution, inside and outside our company.

  3. Great post Alex! I like that BigBelly is looking for new ways to innovate their technology and to move into the “Anything as a Sercive” business, but I am not sure how many consumers are interested in having WiFi stations coming out of public trashbins. I like the idea, but I am skeptical on reception and interest. I think BigBelly should work on fixing the issues around employee training and making their products as efficient as possible; however, it seems like they could easily include marketing/advertising screen on the sides of the trash cans.

  4. Great read Alex. A year or two ago I started noticing these BigBelly trash machines popping up in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I used to live. When they were clean and new, they were delightful, and an incredible upgrade to the city corners. However, after six months the machines were already bruised and battered, and for the most part they were filthy – and this highlights a challenge presented by these new machines. With new technology comes the need to train employees in how to maintain and clean them – something I’m not sure the public budget can afford. Furthermore, whereas the old trash bins were low maintenance and low complexity, I could see these new machines requiring more employees to service them. Again, I doubt that the already cash-strapped NYC public budget would be amenable to that investment. Lastly, I wonder how challenging and expensive it is to maintain these BigBellys and what they will look like after a few years of abuse (doubtful that NYC will stay committed to maintaining them).

  5. This is a very interesting post, Alex, especially since we see these smart bins over campus (I had no idea where they came from.) My biggest concern is something you raise in your post (“The challenge for Bigbelly in successfully implementing its subscription strategy will be convincing its government and municipal customers, with notoriously bureaucratic procurement processes, to get onboard.”) I feel like anytime a company tries to “disrupt” the existing system, it faces significant pushback from the entrenched systems. Government is particularly fickle when it comes making change. Administrations change, budgets tighten, constituencies wonder why so much money is being invested in trash cans, or any other number of potential issues exist for the long-term stability of Big Belly’s products within a specific locality.

    Do you think Big Belly’s biggest problems moving forward will be technology related (ie. improving their product) or sales-related (getting and maintaining adoption by local governments)? I guess I’m not sure if the US at large is ready for “smart cities”, especially because many people may feel it is a waste of resources. Places like San Francisco or Portland, Oregon may find it easier to adopt programs like this, but I can’t see wide-scale adoption anytime soon.

  6. Interesting post Alex! I always wondered why the trash bins on campus had solar panels on them, but now I know.
    I really like the idea of these bins being able to hold 8 times more trash than standard bins. Although there still is some work to do in working with the cities to create a more efficient garbage collection process, this should get better with time as the Bigbelly diffuses to more places within the city.
    I also like the idea of turning these bins into wifi hotspots. There should be more creative ideas of how to utilize these bins – one thought that came to mind was having them equipped with emergency telephones, or, leverage their wifi capabilities to allow direct access to emergency help. This could dramatically lower crime in high risk areas, while keeping streets clean at the same time.

  7. Alex– Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this smart city initiative. I find it really interesting that even a process as simple as collecting trash can be made so much more efficient and tech-enabled. There are loads of companies looking to find a piece of this space to capitalize on. I wonder, given your mention of privacy concerns with the proliferation of data, how the data collected here can be leveraged to be more informative to even larger, more complex problems our cities face. As you also mention, they are moving in to new spaces that leverage their existing infrastructure, but I think that they have a vast opportunity to collect and sell data to the government on movements of people, trash flow, types of trash, etc., which can help city planners better allocate resources and set development agendas in a way that is more specific to how city-dwellers interact with their environment.

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