They say one man's trash is another man's treasure. This couldn't be truer than in the story of BigBelly, a company whose flagship product, the eco-friendly BigBelly Solar Trash Compactor, is revolutionizing the processing of trash in cities around the globe.
As a freshman at Olin, Jeff Satwicz, '06 had no idea his future would be in garbage. He cross-registered at nearby Babson College in order to learn alongside business students who had an entirely different skill set. He hit it off with business students Babson Alexander Perera and James Poss, and along with Olin College of Engineering classmate Bret Richmond, saw an opportunity to improve the process of disposing of trash in cities' public spaces.
Satwicz was motivated by mission-driven work and, because he'd just learned how engineering can embrace sustainability in his classes, was enamored by the idea of infusing eco-friendly elements into design. So as an extracurricular activity, he and his friends researched trash and discovered just how much waste...well, went into waste. For example, the average American produces 30 pounds of trash a week. It's collected using trash trucks, which get 2 to 3 miles per gallon and burn 20 million gallons of fuel a week.
These numbers affected them. Could they create a way for solar power to fuel the compacting of more effective public trash bins? One that not only helped stem the tide of overflowing public trash and recycling bins but also cut down the need for trash trucks, thus dialing back on fuel and traffic?
The group didn't set out to create a product. They went about it in reverse. "I drew on my user-oriented collaborative design class, which challenged us to think of a group of people facing a problem, try to understand their needs and see what solutions may fit," says Satwicz. After connecting with trash collection companies, Satwicz thought he could modify existing compactors by engineering a way to make them hold more waste and run on solar power.
But with his partners, he found that this wasn't efficient or low-cost enough to make it economically or environmentally advantageous. Back at the drawing board, they set out to make their own mechanism: the BigBelly Solar Trash Compactor.
The students spent several years experimenting with ways to best compact trash, harness solar energy and embed software to track the amount of material held inside. "The interdisciplinary approach was key," he says. "Bret and I could focus on technology and design while our business school partners worked on a business plan and fundraising. We had a healthy balance: the more entrepreneurial folks were constantly pushing the envelope and those with more of a causal mindset were keeping us on track."
They eventually unlocked the ability to make BigBelly viable on all levels, and the results speak for themselves. Their compactor is entirely solar powered and handles six times the amount of trash as a regular can, eliminating the need for frequent pick-ups. Plus it's produced at a fraction of the cost of standard public receptacles. They managed to wirelessly connect each bin to a data center, alerting the company as to what is full and when trash is collected, maximizing efficiency and savings.
BigBelly services are now used in every state. Cities using BigBelly usually go from collecting public space waste 2-3 times per day down to 2-3 times per week. "It's certainly rewarding to see an idea we had in 2003 idea grow into reality," he says. "Now--11 years later--we have 25,000 compactors in 45 countries. And of course people get to have a better experience, with cleaner streets and sidewalks."
Although Satwicz has reached an impressive level of success, he is brainstorming innovative ways to use the data they're collecting about the world of trash and help customers improve their operations. And he's not stopping there.
Next up? The business is now pioneering public space compostables collection.