How Bigbelly Evolved from a Waste-Management Firm to an IoT Company

The fast-growing business hopes to leverage a piece of vital urban infrastructure—the public waste bin—into a tool for deploying smart-city applications.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jan 21, 2015

When Bigbelly, Inc., was founded in 2003, the company was focused solely on improving a costly, inefficient municipal service: garbage collection. By integrating a solar-powered compactor that periodically dampens trash bins' contents, the company's receptacles are able to hold significantly more refuse than conventional cans. Twelve years later, Bigbelly is using Internet of Things technology to make trash collection even more efficient—yet it also may emerge as a lynchpin in the wireless sensor network infrastructure on which many smart-city applications rely.

Early on, the company presented the value proposition that municipalities would see a return on their investment in the Bigbelly bins by reducing the number of collections required to empty bins located in busy urban corridors. For the Massachusetts city of Sommerville, this meant that collectors no longer had to empty bins in popular downtown squares during busy summer weekends.

A solar panel atop a Bigbelly bin
In addition, converting to the compacting bins meant that city streets would be freer of litter that typically falls from overflowing trash bins.

But while the bins were cleverly designed, they were not yet "smart" in the ways that the term has come to be defined within an IoT context. A green indicator light on a bin would remain green until an electronic eye sensor within it indicated that the bin was nearly full, at which point the light would turn yellow. This alerted collectors that the bin should be emptied soon, whereas a red light signified that it was at or very near capacity. But this required that the collection staff psychically check the lights on the bins.

Connected Cans
"In addition to handling peak loads, there would be additional value in knowing when you did not have to send trucks to empty the bins," explains Bigbelly's CEO, Jack Kutner. So in 2009, the firm began developing a wireless capability that would enable customers to determine when a bin was sufficiently full to merit a pickup.

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