I love strolling through the streets of downtown Chicago—you never know what you might see. But when winter rolls in, those walks become far and few between. It’s not too fun to be outside at all, let alone go on a leisurely stroll. But, earlier this winter the combination of cabin fever and a fairly mild day (despite piles of slush and gloomy gray skies) spurred me to put on my most toughest boots and warmest coat, and head out for a few errands on foot. It turned out to be a great time, partly because there were enough distractions to keep me from throwing in the towel and jumping in the first taxi home. It seemed like on almost every block I noticed something new (doughnut shop!), interesting (creative wintertime flower boxes) or beautiful (endless architectural details). I managed to get my errands done, feeling like I really embraced the day and the weather, as opposed to just trying to get through another hard winter day.
One of the great things about walking is stumbling across the unexpected. Things you wouldn’t notice if you were zooming by in a car. One day last summer—ahhh, summer—I noticed some new garbage bins downtown that were a complete surprise. I know, how can garbage bins be interesting in the slightest? Well, for one thing, these were combo recycling/garbage bins, which I thought was pretty cool since previously it was impossible to find a public recycling bin downtown and I would have to carry my recyclables home with me like a big green geek. But the really unusual thing that caught my attention was that they were solar compactors. At first I didn’t even really understand what that meant. After looking into it, I found out that there’s a sensor in the can that signals when the garbage reaches a point where it needs to be compacted, enabling the container to hold a great deal more garbage.
It turns out the city installed several hundred Big Belly solar garbage compactors around town with the intent of not only being able to collect recyclables along with garbage, but to cut down the number of garbage pickups. This is a really forward-thinking green move, and I’m proud of the city for making this change. I couldn’t find any stats for Chicago at this point, but in one year Philadelphia was able to go from 17 collections a week to just five and save $900,000. That means less greenhouse gas emissions and fuel use by garbage trucks, not to mention increased recycling. Since the garbage cans have pull-open doors* like mailboxes, they contain the garbage better than open cans, reducing litter. Not too shabby. Makes me wonder what I’ll see on my next walk…
*My only concern is the fact that you have to pull the handle to put garbage in. That means you have to touch something I don’t think most of us really want to touch. As time goes by and the cans get dirtier, will people avoid using them? Will littering actually increase? I hope this isn’t too much of a deterrent, but even I’m a bit wary. I’ll be using the compactors, but along with a healthy supply of hand sanitizer.