In this age of technological gizmos and design-for-Instagram, it’s easy to forget what the real promise of industrial design is: To deliver useful, durable, attractive, ergonomic, mass-manufacturable objects to the masses. Smart Design recently tackled such a project by entering the BetterBin Design Competition, which asked entrants to redesign New York City’s ubiquitous–and very long-in-the-tooth–green trash cans.
“New York City is home to more than 23,250 public street litter baskets,” the competition brief reads. “The most widespread design—the green, wire-mesh basket—is affordable, easy to service and has remained largely unchanged since the 1930s. While iconic to the streets of New York, the wire basket is in need of a redesign to better address the current and future waste needs of the City.”
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As an NYC native, I don’t consider myself the end user for a public trash can. I feel that distinction belongs to the sanitation workers who tirelessly empty them, helping to keep our city clean. If you’ve ever watched one of them hoist a full can–which might weigh over 100 pounds–to empty it into the back of the truck, and if you consider that their routes require them to do this hundreds of times in a single shift, you won’t wonder why the NYC Department of Sanitation’s workers are referred to as “New York’s Strongest.”
This is where design can make a real difference. If you can take even a little effort out of emptying that can, the benefit to the worker grows exponentially. Not to mention that you’ve got this object on practically every corner that everyone will see, and it oughtn’t look like a dated eyesore. Smart Design had their work cut out for them, and I think they knocked it out of the park. (The competition judges clearly agreed, naming Smart a finalist.)
To learn how Smart executed their design, we interviewed industrial designer and project lead Dan Grossman.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Core77: What was it about the BetterBin competition that drew Smart Design in?
Dan Grossman: As a designer, you want as many people using and interacting with your products as possible. That’s the dream, and the idea of having millions of New Yorkers interacting with our trash bins for the foreseeable future is really a dream project in many ways. It was an opportunity that we just couldn’t pass up. As soon as we saw the competition, we knew it was something that we all wanted to be a part of.
We’re a New York City-based firm, and we’ve done a lot of work with the City over the course of our nearly 40 years in business. Most notably, we had collaborated with the Department of Transportation to rework the new taxicabs, in collaboration with Nissan. So working with the City is a bit of our DNA, and for both myself and the team, having the opportunity to design for the City is such an amazing opportunity.
Designing a municipal trash can is real nuts-and-bolts ID. What kinds of research did you guys do?
There’s very few projects that you approach that have the history and longevity of the New York City trash cans, so the first bit of research was really understanding that history, understanding how they have or haven’t evolved over the past 100 years. The existing trash cans, in some iteration of the current construction, have gone mostly unchanged since the 1930s. So [we sought to] really understand the history of the object itself.
From there we went on to the next layer, which is working with the DSNY (the Department of Sanitation) attending these open houses, communicating directly with representatives, and interacting directly with sanitation workers. Having the chance to talk to them one-on-one, communicating with them on the streets, and also just a lot of observation. The trash routes that happen every day and wake you up in the morning, now we were getting out of bed to go watch them happen in real time. That type of actual observation and interaction with the actual users themselves, that was a huge part of our research.
The last thing was watching civilians. On one side of the spectrum you have the sanitation workers that service these things. The other side was watching everyday New Yorkers like ourselves interacting with these cans, watching them throw things away when the can is empty and when it’s full. Watching them move around them and navigate their daily lives around these objects was certainly interesting.
One of the things that I really like about your design are the grab handles on both the top and bottom. What was the insight that led you to that design?
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One of the biggest challenges that a sanitation worker has while servicing a trash can is the weight; these cans can get extremely heavy when they’re full. They’re about 30 pounds-plus when they’re empty, so you can imagine the daily [demands]. Having to lift 30 to 100 pounds every other block is extremely strenuous, and that’s what leads to a lot of injuries on the job.
So we sought to understand: “How can we improve the actual physical experience of a sanitation worker servicing the bin?” And that started with the ergonomics: How they lift it, how they turn it, how they twist it, how they drag it. These are all things that we took into consideration when we were designing for it–really watching how they actually lift the can.
And they don’t just lift the can, they hit it against the [inside of the compactor]. That noise that we hear that wakes us up in the morning, that’s a sanitation worker banging the can against the side of the truck. And they do that because trash gets wet and gross and things get stuck to the bottom. So they do this thing where they turn it and twist it, they’re literally rolling the can on the side.
So these are the pain points and touchpoints that we established as opportunity areas to design into. Creating handles for them to lift, handles for them to turn and twist, and handles for them to essentially bang it against the side of the truck. We just wanted to give the user, who’s the sanitation worker in this case, as much flexibility and opportunity to comfortably service and use these cans.
Your design features vertical bars around the can. Those are to provide protection for when they’re banging it against the truck?
Yes, precisely. There’s a lot of constraints that had to go into this project, and one of the things I mentioned prior was weight. The other thing is durability. These cans are serviced thousands of times in their lifespan, and New Yorkers are tough on things. These cans get a lot of wear and tear. Aside from just daily usage and living on the street, they’re also being literally lifted and thrown and banged and dropped.
So a big part of the work that went into our final design was trying to create something which would structurally hold over time, through all these challenges. We wanted to create a sort of roll cage, like with race cars, around our trash can so that it would be really strong, and able to withstand anything that was thrown at it.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that came up during your research?
Understanding the ergonomics and [the sanitation workers’] behaviors was the most interesting thing.
The thing that was most surprising to us, was actually finding a newfound respect for the existing trash cans. As designers and as New Yorkers in general, it’s really easy to crap on things and be like, “That’s not good, and “That’s not pretty,” and “That’s not cool.”
But you start to realize that for a thing to live on the streets of New York for almost 100 years, there’s a lot of really great things that went into that. And you start to realize the value engineering that has enabled these trash cans to be mass produced, to be serviced, to be replaced and discarded in some sort of a systematic way. There’s a lot of really good thought that went into it. The more we learned about the existing can and the more we watched sanitation workers use it, the more we didn’t want to just completely reinvent it. We wanted to evolve it. We wanted to make it better.
One of the things I’ve observed over the years is seeing sanitation workers dragging full, heavy cans over to the truck. How does your design of the feet, those bottom grab handles, hold up to the dragging action?
That was another thing, we wanted to make it easy. Our whole mission was to make the job of the sanitation worker easier and safer. And with these things being so heavy, they do often have to drag them, sometimes they even have to have two people drag them.
So the way we actually built our design, by creating these reinforcement bars and adding in all these additional handles, we also created these feet. And the feet do a couple things. One of them is they create a sled, and so these bars actually allow for the user, again in this case the sanitation worker, to tilt the can and slide it and drag it to the actual truck. These sleds are almost like skates–they actually allow the sanitation worker to move the can to the truck much more efficiently, and with a lot less [exertion].
The other thing is the feet do, is lift the can a little higher off of the ground. One of the funny–or gross–constraints that we had to design into, is making things more rat-resistant. As New Yorkers, we all know that rats are a part of our ecosystem here, for better or worse, and they obviously love to target the trash cans. That’s where all the food and waste is. Getting it lifted a little off the ground so there’s less rats drawn to it was a big opportunity that we tried to design into.
Do you mean that by elevating it a couple inches you can prevent rats from nibbling at the bottom, or is it somehow an anti-scaling device?
Yeah, it’s more of an anti-scaling device. And also the base of our trash can is [an inverted] dome. We created a dome base. The idea is that one, trash is less likely to get stuck at the bottom and two, it’s harder for rats to scale it.
What are some design features that came out of the civilian research?
We watched how people interact with trash bins that are either empty versus full, [which led us to] create this kind of halo at the top of our cans. That handle we mentioned earlier, we designed it so that it’s 360, a sanitation worker can grab it from any direction that they approach the can from. And by adjusting the height of it and making it a little bit taller, we increased the handle space, which also created this halo. It provides a little more protection for when the trash overfills, it kind of keeps it all intact. It’s not a bulletproof solution, but it’s a little bit of a preventative measure.
Another big insight that we got from our research was people’s understanding of not just trash, but of recycling as well: What can be recycled, what can’t be recycled, and so forth. So one of the design elements of our finished design was a modular panel system. The current trash cans have a small sign that warns people of fines for littering or putting in household trash, which can get you ticketed. It’s a really small surface area, and we wanted to increase the signage. So we created a much larger surface area for signage so that the city can provide better communication to New Yorkers as a whole.
The way the bars are actually built, those panels are actually modular, so you can add or remove panels, which allows both local neighborhoods or businesses to customize them. So basically you can sponsor a can and turn it into a billboard with panels that snap in and out.
It being just a design competition, were there any cost constraints imposed upon you?
There were so many cost constraints. For a competition, it’s one of the hardest projects I’ve ever worked on. A lot of competitions are based around the future or hypothetical questions: “How do we improve this?” or “What’s the future of tech?” This was very much like, “How do we make something real?” So throughout our entire process, we’re very fortunate here at Smart to have an amazing team of mechanical engineers on staff.
And this was very much a design engineering project for us. From day one, we were designing and engineering every part to be both durable and affordable because at the end of the day, we pay for these things. Our tax dollars puts these trash cans on the street. Our tax dollars pays the salaries of sanitation workers. So we wanted to be mindful of how we’re spending the City’s money and residents’ money.
We wanted to create something which is both aesthetically pleasing and could physically withstand the elements. So the challenge was durable and long-lasting, but also not cost prohibitive. These elements make for a really challenging design cocktail, but that’s the type of stuff that we love. And it’s exciting to work on. We always say good constraints equals good design.
Is there a chance that this design will actually go into production if it’s chosen?
I sure hope so. That’s the scope of the project. So again, a real reason why we had to be mindful of both engineering production and cost is that the winner is supposed to go on to actually replace the trash cans here in New York City. I’m sure some things will have to change because of sourcing, materials and a million other variables.
And just to be clear, the design on the street right now, those are prototypes that we built right here. We did all the welding. We worked with a manufacturer in the end, but all the original prototyping was done in-house, and then we brought it to a manufacturer, who actually put those 12 on the street, just to clarify.
What’s a rough estimate of what they might cost?
Unfortunately, with the cost of materials and the potential of these imposing tariffs that we’re going to have, there’s a lot of question marks, but our goal was to make sure that they were within a certain frame, similar to what’s on the street now. And we were very close to that target.
I probably should have asked this up front: What’s your background, and how long have you been with Smart Design?
I’m an Associate Design Director here at Smart. I oversee the Industrial Design Department with the other director that was on this project, James Krause. I’ve been at Smart for just over a year now, so this was one of the first projects that I joined.
Working at Smart Design was always a big personal career goal for me, so it’s been a real highlight both to have the privilege of working here, and to be able to represent them on an international stage, on a competition of this scale.
I’m from New York originally, and as an industrial designer I’ve had the opportunity to work on all sorts of different things over the course of my career. Prior to this, I was the Head of Design at a startup in New York City, BarkBox. Before that, I was a design director for Martha Stewart, overseeing her entire line for kitchen and home. I’ve designed perfume bottles, and I’ve designed chainsaws. This will be my first trash can, but it’s been a big privilege to work on it.
I feel like that breadth is what makes the industrial design profession so much fun.
It’s exactly why I got into it in the first place, and it’s the reason why I still do it today.
The BetterBin Design Competition “marks the launch of Van Alen Institute‘s Product Placed initiative, a new series of design competitions to create innovative civic products that improve urban life.” The competition was co-sponsored by the New York City Department of Sanitation, the Industrial Designers Society of America and the American Institute of Architects New York.
Smart Design’s BetterBins can currently be seen in use at the following NYC locations:
– Midtown, Manhattan: 9th Ave between 43rd and 45th Streets
– Flushing, Queens: Main Street between Maple Ave and Cherry Ave
– Parkchester, the Bronx: Castle Hill Ave between Newbold Ave and Ellis Ave
Feedback can be provided to the DSNY here.