Torontonians know these trash cans are a problem. Are solar compacting bins a solution?

city-garbage-bin - milenio stadium


Toronto has a trash problem with garbage overflowing onto streets and blowing into surrounding areas, and some councillors are now calling on the city to explore a new solution — smart, solar-powered compacting bins for both garbage disposal and recycling.

According to the Rochman Lab at the University of Toronto, the city generated 15,785 tons of litter in 2020, the majority of which was leakage from a poorly functioning waste management system, including trash that just didn’t make it securely into a garbage can.

“It’s not a sexy solution to think about having fancier garbage cans,” said Chelsea Rochman, a University of Toronto professor in ecology and evolutionary biology who runs the Rochman Lab and the U of T trash team.

“But I think it’s critical.”

Professor Chelsea Rochman and UofT Trash team members
Chelsea Rochman, centre, and U of T trash team members are trying to reduce litter. Rochman says it may not sound sexy, but the right trash bins can be part of the solution. (Submitted: UofT Trash Team)

The bins would use solar panels and sensors to compact the waste, significantly increasing capacity in the bins and decreasing the frequency of waste collection trips needed because they’d fill less quickly.

“They just have a tighter fitting lid and they can pack the trash … Those are two incredibly good features,” said Rochman.

While we need to find other solutions such as reducing our use of plastic, “garbage cans are the foundational piece of a sound waste management system,” she said.

“Without garbage cans that keep the garbage in the garbage, we are creating a …  simple and obvious leakage point for that litter to be getting into the environment.”

The city’s Infrastructure and Environment Committee has unanimously called on council to direct staff to return with a report on the new solar bins. Such a report, they say, would help them decide whether to go ahead with a pilot project using the bins in one area of the city. The motion is expected to go before council as early as Tuesday.

Not just ‘Band-Aid solutions’

“It’s about time we started to look at real solutions to the state of our garbage bins and not just do Band-Aid solutions,” said Coun. Mike Colle, who represents Ward 8, Eglinton-Lawrence.

Colle, who moved the motion at committee, says he’s been fielding calls and as a jogger has been seeing the situation deteriorate himself for months.

“I got a call today about a bin… overflowing, broken, next to a rat hole. So the rats were basically coming out of the rat hole to feed out of our garbage every day,” he told CBC Toronto on Monday.

Councillor Mike Colle's motion calls on staff to look at smart, solar-powered trash bins to tackle the issue.
Councillor Mike Colle’s motion calls on staff to look at smart, solar-powered trash bins to tackle the trash issue. (Submitted by Mike Colle)

He says the city is already studying issues with the current bins and waste management process, but he wanted staff to place a bigger focus on solutions when they reported back. Looking at other jurisdictions, solar-powered compacting bins looked promising, he says.

Saint John, N.B., Montreal and Winnipeg are ahead of Toronto in trying out the solar bins, and other cities around the world are also using them.

Ken Allen, communications coordinator for the City of Winnipeg, told CBC Toronto the Manitoba capital began using the bins as part of a pilot project in 2018 and continues to use them across the city on a limited basis. Winnipeg is continuing to evaluate the bins and how best to use them, he says.

Colle says business improvement areas in his ward have already expressed an interest in testing the new bins if a pilot goes ahead.

‘Too early’ to assess proposed bins, city says

Emily Alfred, a waste campaigner for the Toronto Environmental Alliance, says while the city’s trash issue is real and has most Torontonians concerned, she isn’t yet sure solar-powered compacting bins are the right solution.

She says she is “cautiously interested,” but memories of the contract for the Astral garbage bins the city is now using give her pause. Many critics, including Mayor John Tory, say those bins are no longer serving Toronto well.

CBC News reached out to the City of Toronto for comment about the possible use of solar compacting bins and was told any assessment would be premature since council hasn’t voted on the motion yet.

“It is too early to determine the impact of any use of Solar Powered Smart Compacting Bins in Toronto,” Matt Keliher, the general manager of Solid Waste Management Services, wrote in an email.

“The city continues to work collaboratively with Astral/Bell Media to maintain the existing litter bins, including regular audits of the state of the bins,” said Hakeem Muhammad, the spokesperson for Transportation Services, in a written statement to CBC News.

Montreal and other municipalities are already using solar-powered smart waste receptacles, like this was made by Bigbelly.
Montreal and other municipalities are already using solar-powered smart waste receptacles, like this one made by a company called Bigbelly. (Submitted by Bigbelly)

Alfred says the city should consider if public funds would be better spent on education, communication or better waste management systems.

“I don’t want to get distracted by expensive, flashy solutions if they don’t actually work and continue to divert waste,” she said.

Alfred says she is supportive of the city studying the issue very carefully before entering into an expensive contract.

“Sometimes a more straightforward, easy to maintain option might be better.”

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