The Problem With Relying on a Machine to Eat All Your Garbage

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo tells us more about what happens when you have a hi-tech electronic garbage can that keeps breaking.

Almost everything in my house is automatic/electronic in some way. But after three infrared-enabled automatic kitchen trash cans I’m done.

— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) August 25, 2014

Farhad! So what happened here?

I use machines for everything. I’m that kind of guy. I cook sous vide, I’ve got a Japanese bidet toilet with heated seats, my soap dispenser is automatic, and my plants are watered on a very precise timer. So when I have some garbage to throw away, you can bet I’m not going to bother with jamming on a pedal to open up some dirty, germ-laden trash vessel, like the way they used to do in medieval times. Nope, no manual labor for me, no sir. When I get home after a long day of typing words, my hands laden with trash, I want a machine to react to my very proximate presence, to open up like Ali Baba’s cave, a gaping, infrared-enabled maw just begging for my trash.

So I bought one. All the way back in 2006, Amazon informs me, a year before the iPhone came out, I bought an iTouchless Deodorizer Touch-Free Sensor 13-Gallon Automatic Stainless-Steel Trash Can.

And all was good. For a year, at least, that thing was magic. You’d go near it and boom, it’d open, happy to take your trash. And after a few seconds the lid would come down slowly, sated, joyful as a sleepy puppy. I’m telling you, life was good. When people came over they couldn’t stop talking about this trash can. It was something they’d never seen before. Look at it; it’d just open for you when you had something to throw away. Kids who came over would play with it. Literally they would go around the house looking for garbage only to be able to experience the joy of this trash can. Who could ask for anything more from a household gadget, especially this lowliest of all gadgets?

Then it broke. Who knows why, some kind of gear problem or something. It was just out of warranty, apparently, so I had to buy a new motor-lid-part-thing to get it working again. And it worked fine, for a time, until that broke too.

So then I had to buy another one. This one lasted I think eight months. Oh, those were good months. Then one day, again, horrors. It’s gone.

At this point we just forgot about it. We began using it manually. Let me describe what I mean: See, an automatic trash can does not, by design, have any good manual way to use it. There’s no pedal. There’s no little lip in the lid in which to slip your fingers and pull it up. Nope; instead you’ve got to pry your fingers into the trash can’s mouth, then lift up with great force, and then — see, this is the worst — you’ve got to remember to close it, because a broken automatic trash can’t even do the basic thing of obeying gravity to shut itself. So our trash can was always open, and our kitchen always kind of reeked.

We’ve lived that way for at least a year, I’d say. I always thought I’d get around to calling the company to complain. But I never did.

What now? Where do you go from here? Might you return to an all-manual home?

No, we’re keeping all the gadgets, but we did finally ditch the automatic trash can. I spent many long minutes on Amazon researching all the different auto trash can brands and from what I can tell, they all break. Apparently we can now make computers that recognize language and faces, and our cars can drive themselves, but the long-lived automatic trash can remains just beyond collective human capacity.

I did buy a really nice manual trash can. It’s got some kind of patented system to make it shut really quietly and smoothly. It’s also guaranteed to live a very long time. We’ve had it for about a week. No one is cooing over it. There’s nothing unusual about how it works: You step on it and throw your shit in. But let me tell you, after so many months using my fingers to claw open that defective old autocan, this manual one is a dream.

Lesson learned (if any)?

I guess the easy conclusion is: Sometimes the old stuff is best, sometimes they got it right the first time, don’t reinvent the wheel, etc. etc.

But I’m not buying it. The automatic trash can is a fantastic idea. It just hasn’t been implemented decently yet. There’s loads of money sloshing around Silicon Valley. Can’t someone throw five million dollars to automatic trash can research? Can we start an ice-bucket challenge for it?

Just one more thing.

Have you heard that Apple is holding a press event this week to announce (everyone thinks) a watch and a phone? I’ll be there covering it, but some small part of me will be disappointed when they don’t unveil an auto trash can. It’s the future, man. Have you ever seen them hop on a pedal to throw stuff away on Star Trek? No.

Kickstarter, You listening?

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.