Get in my belly: Invasion of the Portland trash robots

The invasion of the trash robots began in the year two thousand and ten, when the foolish humans of Peaks Island, Maine, allowed two units to establish a beachhead on their outpost in Casco Bay. In the chaotic years that followed, this would prove to be a strategic blunder, as it made the island inhospitable to refugees attempting to flee the mainland.

The first pair of robots were invited to the island by a group called the Peaks Island Environmental Action Team — think The Avengers, minus the super powers and any actual “action.” The robots hoodwinked the humans by promising them convenience and litter control. Instead, they delivered death and destruction.

The robots stand about four-and-a-half feet high. They are square and stout, with a tough exterior made of gun-gray metal and hard black plastic. The humans would eventually learn, much to their chagrin, that the trash-bots are bomb-, fire- and bulletproof.

photos by Sarah Bouchard

A crude illustration on all four sides depicts a figure tossing an item into an open barrel. This robot-drawn pictogram should have tipped off the humans to the machines’ malevolent intent. The figure has what appears to be a deep stab wound in its back. The casual observer may interpret this as a depiction of a person bending over, but there is no need to bend to either drop an item into a barrel or deposit trash into the robot’s receptacle, which is accessed by pulling down the handle on its face. Chillingly, the figure’s head is not attached to its body. And tellingly, the trash-bots bear a name that references the human race’s fateful propensities for sloth and over-consumption: BigBelly.

The robots have three eyes. The one on the right is green and winks in a friendly fashion to lure humans into approaching and feeding it precious materials. As the robot gets full — or, frightened people would later realize, angry — it switches to its middle eye, which glows caution yellow, then to its left eye, which burns red.

The robots are able to power themselves using energy from the sun, which they collect with solar panels on top of their heads. They normally use this energy to power their eyes, run an internal compactor and communicate via the Internet, but nothing is “normal” anymore.

In the year two thousand and twelve, a man named Troy Moon, who served as Portland’s Environmental Programs and Open Space manager, gave an interview to a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. By this point, there were 12 trash-bots in the city, including the two on Peaks, a couple camped in Deering Oaks, one in Bell Buoy Park on Commercial Street and seven others on Munjoy Hill (in yet another strategic blunder, the city effectively ceded the high ground early on).

Moon naively marveled at the robots’ ability to use the World Wide Web. Municipal trash managers could monitor how full each robot is via computer and thus schedule pick-ups more efficiently, reducing human labor and fuel costs. Recyclable materials cannot be extracted from the machines, but Moon had a solution in mind: more robots. (The BigBelly company also sells units that collect bottles and cans).

Each trash-bot cost more than $4,000 — money a more compassionate, less gadget-obsessed society might spend to, say, feed a hungry child for an entire year. Furthermore, because the robots are completely enclosed, homeless humans cannot retrieve returnables from the receptacles to supplement their meager government aid. Squirrels and seagulls that rely on open trash barrels for sustenance were similarly shut out and starved.

Moon said feedback from the public had been positive, and trash managers in other cities with BigBellies had not reported any problems or uprisings. He said Portland officials hoped to secure federal money in the year two thousand thirteen to buy another dozen trash-bots, and to borrow additional funds for even more units to be placed in other parts of town. This was a fateful mistake.

The trash-bots first formed an alliance with Portland’s new robot parking meters. This gave them access to credit card numbers and a small fortune in loose change, which they used to bribe corrupt city councilors into buying and installing more trash-bots. Then they joined forces with the global ATM army to bring the world’s financial system to its knees.

The BigBellies’ powerful compressors could also work in reverse, becoming ejectors that fired bags of canine excrement at terrified pedestrians. WiFi-enabled cars picked off others as they fled homes that had been taken over by so-called “smart meters.”

If there are any humans left to read this column, please, stop feeding these monstrous machines! End this insurrection before it’s too late!

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.