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Beach town gets solar compactors
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PSTA and city of Indian Rocks Beach officials gather around the solar powered trash compactor in Indian Rocks Beach. From left are Eric Meyer of Action 2000, Mayor R.B. Johnson, Calvin Warren Solid Waste Supervisor and Bill Howard of PSTA.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - Of all the things that go high-tech, garbage is probably the least likely thing that comes to mind, but in Indian Rocks Beach, high-tech garbage exists in at least two locations.

The city recently got involved with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and installed two solar-powered trash receptacles in the city. One is in Chic-A-Si Park and the other at the bus stop on Gulf Boulevard in front of the CVS pharmacy.

There is more than just solar power that distinguishes these receptacles from other garbage cans. City Public Services Director Dan Scharmen said the containers can actually speak for themselves.

“When the container gets nearly full it will generate an email to our office and let us know,” he said. “In the two weeks that we’ve had them we haven’t had to empty them yet, before we’d have to check and empty the conventional receptacles every day. You can imagine the saving in manpower and fuel and everything else.”

Scharmen said he stumbled onto the existence of the new high-tech containers when he was reading a paper one day and saw in an article that the PSTA was using them at many of their bus stops. He decided to see if some of them could be installed in Indian Rocks Beach.

PSTA’s Facilities Supervisor, Bill Howard, said the bus line has installed 20 of the containers throughout the county, and they have saved a lot of money.

“I have to admit when I first heard about them I said ‘solar trash can?’” he said. “It caught me flat-footed; never in a thousand years did I think someone would dream up something like that. Now we love them. It has cut our service calls down 75 percent.”

Howard said the containers are particularly useful to the PSTA because of the type of trash that bus riders generate.

“Most of the trash is bulky,” he said. “Things like cups and lots of paper and that fills up a garbage can quickly. But now the compactor can squeeze 18 inches of trash into one inch so it takes much longer to fill up the can.”

The solar compactors are made by a company called Big Belly Solar of Newton, Mass., and the name Big Belly is prominently displayed on the front of the container. Howard said the name, and the action that goes on when trash is put inside has attracted an interesting audience.

“One day we noticed little kids were running around picking up trash so they could deposit it and listen to the compactor work,” he said. “There is no danger because a safety device ensures that the compactor won’t work until the door is closed.”

Howard said it isn’t just children who are intrigued by the machine.

“Older people notice it,” he said. “People are playing it like a slot machine; they want to put something in there to make it happen.”

Each compactor costs $3,500, but Howard said they pay for themselves in a hurry. He said the fewer service calls means fewer man hours and that adds up to a substantial savings.

The solar panel on top of the machine makes sure the internal battery is always charged to operate the compactor when trash is put in. Howard said it makes the machines almost maintenance-free.

“There is very little maintenance. We just have to make sure the sensors are kept clean so it will work,” he said. “We’re pretty happy with them. It has been a year and we’ve had no real issue with them. One of them had a bad sensor and the company quickly sent us a new one.”

Officials in Indian Rocks Beach are just as happy with the Big Belly. Public Services Director Scharmen said they are exploring ways to install other compactors around the city, not just those servicing PSTA riders. The community group, Action 2000, chipped in and paid for the concrete pads on which the compactors are placed. Scharmen is hoping they and other groups will partner with the city to install more.

“Maybe the county or other civic groups will get involved,” he said. “There have to be opportunities out there and with the benefits of the compactors and other groups helping to make it happen, you just can’t go wrong.”
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