For sure the New York Junior League, who does seriously great work sprucing up Marcus Garvey Park, meant well when they sponsored Bigbelly garbage cans in the park, a four-block square oasis in Harlem. I disliked the big boxy cans instantly for their overbearing presence and distracting colors and signage that is so out of harmony with the setting.

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life


Little did I know how far Bigbelly’s bad design would extend. Were it functional, I would bear with its ugliness (ugly alone is not a candidate for the Annals of Bad Design, since it is a matter of taste). As I would discover over several months of daily walks in the park, the Bigbelly’s “smart usb, solar-powered waste & recycling system” was profoundly flawed as a garbage receptacle.

Every time I passed a Bigbelly, it was overflowing with garbage.


Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

…To put garbage into it, you have to open a shoot door on its front.

When I opened the door, one reason for the overflow became clear: the opening isn’t large enough for much of the garbage people throw in it. And who would want to put their arm in to its filthy opening to push garbage in?

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

The most astonishing design strangeness became apparent when I noticed the front panel was ajar on a dented Bigbelly I came across one day…

So I opened it. It turns out the reason the Bigbelly is so often overflowing, is that it has hardly any room for actual garbage. That’s because its supposed to automatically compact the garbage.

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

According to Bigbelly’s website, When the public deposit waste in the rubbish or waste recycling unit, a sensor measures capacity and a compactor presses it all down. This allows the unit to swallow up to eight times more waste than a standard street bin before it fills up. The unit then sends an email notification to say how full it is and when it will be ready to be emptied.

Clearly, the Bigbelly system isn’t working in Marcus Garvey Park. If its sensors and compactors and automatic pick up don’t work, then effectively its like putting a home garbage can in the park.

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

It seems that Bigbelly is really designed to be a multi-receptacle recycling system that is emptied often.

The old fashioned garbage cans nearby put Bigbelly to shame:

They have a big opening at the top that you can just drop your garbage into…

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

…they hold a lot and its easy to see when they need emptying…

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

…and they have an unobtrusive presence amidst the beauty and activity of the park…

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

…a simple design approach that works…


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One thought on “Annals of Bad Design: Bigbelly Garbage Can

  1. Yes – I hate these things. They are all over our neighbourhood, and who ever has two hands available to toss out garbage. Don’t we want to make it EASIER for people to refrain from littering? This one does just the opposite. I am afraid that someone saw “solar powered” and somehow thought that must mean it’s better. Maybe they paid more attention to it than that, but for sure they didnt use it. Hope the city figures it out and returns the regular – functional! – garbage cans back. These things are difficult to use and create mess and rats. What a silly idea. Hope someone at the city council reads this and puts a BAN on ordering any more of these….

    Thanks – as always, Sally. Just a NYC pet peeve, and it helps that other new yorkers see it and feel the same!

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