Underground Bins: The End for Wheelie Bins?

Underground Bins: the end for wheelie bins?

A new system for collecting waste & recycling is on the horizon, and Cambridge is the first one that has taken a step towards that future! The north-west Cambridge development decided to take on an ambitious project: 450 Underground Bins across 155 sites in Cambridge.

Cambridge underground binsThe new project aims to serve residential homes for universities, commercial & community facilities. When completed in the next decade, this system will eliminate the need for 9000 wheelie bins in the district of Eddington alone. Could this mean this end of wheelie bins?

Origins of the Wheelie Bin

Wheelie Bins have been part of a traditional system of waste & recycling collection in the UK. They have been around for so long that they seem to be part of the scenery, something that no one would ever question, let alone replace!

The modern wheelie bin as we know it is a descendant of the invention by Slough-based company Frank Rotherham Mouldings, made on March 12, 1968. Its popularity skyrocketed after a health & safety officer noticed its efficiency in factories. However, it wasn’t until the 80s that local councils introduced a refuse collection vehicle, and considered the wheelie bin a viable solution for waste collection!

green wheelie bin against green backdropWheelie bins have since then been cemented into the British landscape, adorning the front of houses or alleys. It was a simple and straightforward system that ensured an organised waste bags collection. It meant that if you had no wheelie bin out front, there would be no collection. However, there has been much debate over the efficiency of that system in the past decade.

Safety issues were brought up as wheelie bins were vandalised (read our previous blog on wheelie bin arson). Wheelie bins became a target for rodents, pests, and maggots. The summer heat made for foul smells and a threat to health for passers-by and neighbourhoods. Not to mention the space they eat up in front of houses or when stored at the back. Some residents flat-out refused to be delivered a wheelie bin but had to accept one, which added to growing discontent.

Underground Bins: The Future?

And so, we look to overseas practices to find inspiration. The Portuguese company Sotkon providing these Underground Bins to Cambridge, has had multiple successes across Europe & South America. The concept is simple: a communal waste collection system that is emptied as and when required.

underground bins viewed from the surfaceThe underground bins are 5m3 metallic or plastic containers beneath the surface, with a waste receptacle at the surface, which doesn’t look that different from a standard street bin. When residents bring their waste to the open-air centre, they simply lift the lid and drop their waste bags & recycling down the corresponding chute and close the lid.

contents of the underground bin chuteSensors in the container monitor waste levels and notify the council for collection when necessary. A specialist truck is required to collect the waste, which represents another investment. The vehicle needs to have a crane at the back, which lifts the entire container. The container has a drop-away base, which enables a quick extraction of all the waste into the vehicle.

pros & cons of underground bins for residents, businesses and councilsHow does this change things? Well, it has a positive visual impact on streets and houses. It reduces the risks of vandalism and wheelie bin arson. It eliminates health risks such as smells, rodents, and pests. And it certainly reduces the chances of fines for overflowing bins. The added distance might force some to reconsider the amount of waste they have, which could encourage recycling! Residents also don’t have to worry about collection days and times. However, several new issues might still arise.

Adapting Underground Bins in the UK

As much as the centralised system offers benefits, the underground bins might become a target for vandalism themselves, as they are essentially a huge chute. In Cambridge, a warning sign tells people not to climb into the chutes: “deep pit, confined space and sharp objects inside.” It might also be more difficult for those with mobility issues to adapt to this new system. The project demands considerable thought and reconstruction of the system already in place.

warning label on underground binThe Business Development Manager at Plastic Omnium suggests that the initial cost is recouped over the long term. This is done through the reduced number of collections, the absence of wheelie bins to repair or replace, and the reduced cost of vermin control. Sotkon stresses the importance of choosing non-hydraulic underground bin system, which reduces the maintenance cost. They suggest that low maintenance systems have a payback period of 3 to 5 years.

Binmen tying crane to underground bin

It might take a long time to shift from kerbside waste collection to underground bins. However, as the government recently announced to review the ‘worst’ estates in the UK, local authorities may be able to adopt new systems. The presence of underground bins is certain to increase over the next 10 to 20 years. Cambridge is distributing leaflets explaining the system to its residents. Labels are also being sent out for their internal bins, to match the underground bins! The Cardiff council is currently considering implementing the communal system as well.


Meanwhile, wheelie bins are still alive & kicking (we’re counting on it!), and if you have any wheelie-related questions, you can reach us through Live Chat on Wheelie Bins Direct2U!

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