User-Friendly Garbage: Trash Cans As Assistive Technology (AT)

Image source: BigBelly
Image source: City of Millbrae

BigBelly trash cans have sprouted across highly-populated urban environments, perhaps as a result of their unique aesthetic and our society’s assumption that technological advancements equate innovation and progress. These inventions are admirable and appear to be beneficial — at first glance. They attempt to address certain usability issues like dirty trash can handles, concealing garbage on the street, and eco-consciousness (since these trash cans are often coupled with at least one container for recyclable items and the other for trash).  BigBelly trash cans even have large, mailbox-like handles and foot pedals for extra convenience.

As an assistive technology, these trash bins touch on the social model of disability because they alter user environments rather than the users themselves. The containers reframe how an everyday item can work. Trash can pedals, in particular, are useful in urban environments where germs and bacteria easily spread and reproduce — a common consequence of high civilian density and public interaction. By removing the need to touch a trash can to use it, there is less likelihood of users spreading and catching germs.

Despite these benefits, users report poor experiences with these trash cans and the containers have yet to take over our global sanitation system. The most noticeable attributes of these trash bins both benefit and deter normate and disabled users.

Image source: BigBelly

Not all BigBelly trash cans even have foot pedals, and the ones that do can be difficult to step on (enough so that the lid will not respond or open fully for the user). This negatively affects users with less physical strength or lower body mobility issues. The large handles may be easy for most users to reach and pull, however these handles will inevitably get dirty and they require two free hands in order to open and dispose trash within the confines of the small opening.  Due to the large size of the BigBelly containers, the handles are placed at an “ideal” height for adult users, however, this would not be as accessible to reach or pull on for shorter users or those seated in wheelchairs.

Image source: PolyCentric, Cal Poly Pomona
Image source: Metro Media US

Another downside to this type of trash can is its low garbage visibility. Although the black canisters were designed to hide their displeasing innards, the concealment makes it more difficult to determine when the containers are full and need to be emptied. The BigBelly trash cans are supposed to send signals to an administrator when the bins are full and need emptying, however that seems like an impractical charge for large urban systems.

These cumbersome detriments of the BigBelly trash cans align this invention more so with (a poor execution of) the functional solutions model of disability because these attributes do not improve usability and a user’s experience, but instead complicate things and narrow the user demographic.

While researching reviews and current usage of the BigBelly trash cans, I came across a recent design competition in NYC. “[T]he Department of Sanitation, along with the nonprofit Van Alen Institute, the Industrial Designers Society of America, and the American Institute of Architects New York [asked] for designs as part of an open competition to identify the city’s next garbage can.” [1] What was particularly interesting about the competition was not only it’s benefit to the public and the city’s image, but also to the workflow and wellbeing of the “invisible” sanitation workers who have to lift and clean out hundreds of cans throughout the boroughs. The winning design came from a Brooklyn-based team called “Group Project.”

Image source: Group Project

Their design is strikingly similar to what users might think of as a ubiquitous NYC trash can (which was Group Project’s intention), but small alterations in materials and features allow this design to tackle issues that the BigBelly trash cans perpetuated or ignored. The Group Project trash can design is expected to cost “a maximum of $175 when fabricated in bulk” and has “a lifespan of about three years, which would entail being tipped into the back of a truck nearly 2,650 times” [2], while the BigBelly trash cans reportedly cost approximately $4,000. [3]

“The new bins, one for recycling and the other for waste, will have a lid bisected by a bar and feature a removable plastic sheath that weighs just 10 pounds, which sanitation workers can carry to trash trucks; the city’s current cans, in contrast, weigh more than 30 pounds, and that’s with no trash inside. The bar across the middle functions not just as a hinge for the lid but also prevents the dumping of oversized household waste in the bins.” [4]


[1] Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey, and Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan. “The Quest to Redesign NYC’s Garbage Cans.” Fast Company, August 9, 2018.

[2] “New York City’s Trash Cans of Tomorrow.” Bloomberg.Com, December 4, 2019.

[3] Culgin, Kara, Doré Mangan, and Jessica Pool. “Benefit-Cost Analysis of BigBelly Solar Compactors in City of Seattle Parks.” The Evans School Review 3, no. 1 (Spring 2013).

[4] “New York City’s Trash Cans of Tomorrow.”