Choosing a Residential Bear-Resistant Garbage Can

They are many important factors to consider when evaluating the bear resistant cans that are now available in today’s marketplace.

Patti Sowka

The concept of garbage as a significant bear attractant is not a new one. However, as grizzly and black bear populations increase and expand their geographic range in the U.S. and Canada, more communities are realizing the importance of securing garbage. Not only does securing garbage prevent bears from being needlessly destroyed, but it also prevents agency resources from being wasted on trapping, relocating and more often, destroying food-conditioned bears. Most importantly though, securing garbage is critically important to the safety of residents and their pets, especially those living around the fringes where good bear habitat meets more suburban, residential development, referred to as the Wildland-Urban Interface.

Early Bear Resistant Cans

Wildlife experts who manage bears have been preaching the benefits of securing garbage for a long time. But prior to the early 2000s, there were not many bear-resistant (garbage) cans (BRCs).  Residents who did not have a secure shed or garage to store their garbage cans in until pickup were either forced to leave the cans outside and accessible to bears, or keep the cans inside the house and suffer the odiferous consequences.

By 2005 or so there were several BRCs on the market. However, nobody really knew how well these early products worked at keeping the bears out. The thickness of a can’s body of lid, the ribs or channels in a can’s lid, the lid hinges, placement of latches, thickness of metal banding around a can’s lid or the rim of the body, and especially any alterations to the bear-resistant latch or latches on these cans greatly affect a product’s ability to deter bears.  This got the attention of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), a group of agencies charged with recovering grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. The IGBC agreed to expand their bear-resistant products testing program, which originally focused on testing products used to store food by people using public lands, to include testing of garbage-related products.

In 2003, an updated testing protocol was implemented and bear-resistant garbage container testing began with eight captive grizzly bears at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana. The BRCs were baited with interesting and enticing sauces and foods and placed into the bear enclosure with various combinations of bears. If the cans were able to withstand 90 minutes of biting, clawing, rolling and other physical abuse by the bears, and remained functional and intact at the end of the test, the cans passed the test.

The Importance of Certification

Captive bear testing provided a way to screen out obviously ineffective designs and helped manufacturers identify weak points in their products.  Testing also provided significant marketing advantages to manufacturers.  Many manufacturers consider the IGBC stamp of approval, or certification, critical to the sales efforts.  This “stamp of approval” has actually become so widely-accepted and important that many communities, bear managers, fish and wildlife agencies, homeowners associations and other consumers now demand IGBC-certification of products they purchase.

Selecting a product that has been tested by captive bears through the IGBC Bear-Resistant Products Testing Program is extremely important for several reasons. First, as mentioned above, communities, municipalities, homeowners associations and others are now requiring IGBC-approved containers in many areas of the country. Second, testing BRCs gives consumers some assurance that a can is at least reasonably bear-resistant. If a can is not tested with live bears, there is no way to identify potential weaknesses in the products’ design. No product should ever be tested using wild bears. If the product fails, the bear that breached that container has just learned a very bad behavior and will undoubtedly repeat that behavior on other garbage cans.

Quality and Investment in the Right BRC

There are other important factors that should be considered when selecting BRCs. Human nature usually leads us to purchase cheaper products so we can purchase more of them for the same amount of money.  Bear-resistant cans tend to be more expensive than regular cans so it can be quite a shock and substantial financial outlay when you have to buy them in large quantities. Let’s walk through a hypothetical purchasing decision to see what makes the most sense. Let’s assume you have already made the decision to buy BRCs to offer to your customers, or perhaps because the community you are hauling for is now requiring them as part of your hauling contract. You have gotten quotes from two manufacturers and one will sell them to you for $150 each and the other for $215 each.  You’ve decided to buy the $150 cart so you can get more of them. Great decision right? Maybe … but cheaper is not always the smarter way to go.  Let me explain why.

First, consider product quality and warranty when comparing carts:

  • Will the product hold up to the constant wear and tear from your hauling truck?
  • Will the product hold up to the weather?
  • What happens when the carts are hit by a snowplow and buried in a pile of snow for a week?
  • Do they get crushed, ripped apart, and do the latches break?
  • What kind of a warranty does the manufacturer offer?

A good product will usually offer a longer warranty and will cover the entire cart. Warranties of five or six years are available on some carts now. That is full-replacement for up to six years! Usually, BRCs that are higher quality will offer a better warranty since the manufacturer knows that they are not going to have to replace many parts or whole cans. If you end up having to replace your $150 cans two or even three times in the period of time that you could have had one of the $215 cans, now the more expensive can adds up to be the better investment.

Quality and the type of production process used to make the BRC should also be considered when thinking about how the bears in the area behave around garbage and homes. Bears that are comfortable around people and used to getting a nightly meal from garbage cans will chew holes into injection-molded carts in no time. If you have bears like this in your area, injection-molded carts are not a good option. You will end up replacing them frequently and your “cost savings” will go right out the window. When considering BRCs, the features you should look for are as follows.

Double-Walled vs. Single-Walled Cart Bodies and Lids

When selecting bear-resistant carts, one thing to look for is a double-walled body and lid. Since these carts are made of plastic and bears can chew through plastic, the goal is to slow the bears down and discourage them to the point where they decide to move on to an easier meal. Single-walled carts are really easy for a bear to chew holes into. Almost immediately the bear will likely receive some kind of tasty reward. A small drip of meat juice, melted ice cream, spilled cereal or pretty much anything will spur them on for more. In a matter of a few minutes, they will have a nice size hole chewed into the body or lid of the cart and will be dragging bags or whatever they can grab with their claws out through that hole.

Double-walled carts and lids provide an extra layer of protection and discouragement and it is often enough to cause the bear to move on. If the bear does not breach the inside layer of the garbage can, no food is obtained and the bear heads off for easier pickings. There are not many brands of double-walled containers on the market, but they are an excellent deterrent and typically last longer than the single-walled carts.

Semi-Automated vs. Fully-Automated

Typically, semi-automated carts tend to cost less than fully-automated carts; however, that price difference is decreasing. What if you do not need fully-automated carts right now, but you are considering automating in the future? Save yourself money and buy fully-automated carts now.  Then you will not have to replace them when you automate. Fully-automated carts can be used in semi-automated applications just as easily as semi-automated carts can—they just provide the added benefit of allowing for full-automation.

Ok, so you are automated but you think you will save yourself some money and buy semi-automated carts and have your drivers get out of the trucks, unlock the lids, get back into the truck and empty the carts? That does not make sense. The extra time it takes the driver to service that container, and the higher worker’s compensation insurance rates you are going to pay to have that driver get out of that truck likely more than wipe out any savings you might have realized by purchasing those semi-automated carts. Oh, and if you automate in a few years, you will end up replacing those semi-automated containers too.

Another note about using semi-automated containers on fully-automated routes is that this often results in carts being left unlatched overnight or for some number of hours in the morning prior to pick up. Bears can (and do!) become conditioned to hitting unlatched garbage cans once they learn the day of the week that the trucks come by to empty the cans. This defeats the whole purpose of having bear-resistant carts and can result in more severe ordinances or restrictions being placed on residents and/or haulers.

Self-Latching vs. Manual-Latching Lid

Many ordinances, communities, hauling contracts, HOAs and other groups now require self-latching BRCs. Self-latching refers to a lid that automatically locks when the user sets it back down after placing their bag of garbage inside the can. Self-latching lids take most of the user error out of BRCs by locking themselves (i.e., not relying on the user to lock the lid again after use). I have been involved with bear-resistant products for about 20 years and I am still amazed at the number of people who will not take the time to close a lid and lock the latches on a manual-latching bear-resistant product like a dumpster, food storage locker, garbage can or other product.

Ease of Use

This is another important thing to consider when choosing from several bear-resistant cart options. Take into consideration certain groups of users like children with small hands and short stature who might have to take garbage out for mom or dad, elderly folks who might have trouble with arthritic fingers trying to undo certain kinds of latches, and other issues such as ice freezing latches in the closed position and making them nearly impossible to unlock, and containers that have latches hidden away in receptacles where little or arthritic fingers cannot access them.

Consider All Factors

In summary, the captive bear test provides valuable information about the relative ability of a bear to access a BRC. However, remember that a BRC captive bear test should not be the only factor in evaluating which bear-resistant garbage product to choose for your business, community or group. Product quality and durability, product warranty, semi-automated versus fully-automated operation and future plans to automate service (i.e., Will you have to replace all of your cans at that point? Is the can single walled or double walled?), the amount of time your employees will spend replacing, repairing and delivering cans, and the public relations value of providing a good, easy to use, reliable can to your customer or residents are all important factors to consider when evaluating the many BRCs that are now available in today’s marketplace. Patti Sowka is a Human-Bear Conflict Specialist for Sowka Enterprises LLC and Co-Chair of the Human Bear Conflict Expert Team for the IUCN Bear Specialist Group. Patti can be reached at psowka15@gmail.com. For more information about the fully-automated Kodiak Can, visit www.kodiak-products.com or contact Northland Products at (928) 636-9298.

My Experience:
Effectively Reducing Bear Encounters

George Barce, Wildlife Biologist

“Since the early 1900s, the human population in the U.S. has more than tripled. The increase in the number of people has led to an increase in conflicts with wildlife. One of the most challenging conflicts has been with bears. These bears are usually responding to some type of attractant. In this area of Western Montana, we have both grizzly and black bears. We have trapped grizzlies weighing more than 600 pounds and black bears approaching 400 pounds.

As a Wildlife Biologist for many years, I have always advocated that homeowners secure their attractants to reduce bear encounters. There are a variety of techniques to secure bird feeders, barbeques, horse pellets, chickens, etc. However, household garbage has always been a challenge. There are many recommendations to keep bears away from garbage, including storing the garbage container in a bear-proof building, constructing a bear-proof enclosure and bear-resistant garbage containers.

Throughout the years I have tried a variety of new bear-resistant garbage containers as they have become available. All of the products used required the refuse truck driver to exit the vehicle to unfasten the lid. Consequently, this costs the refuse collection company more time and money to complete their route. In addition to reluctance from the collection company, the bears frequently damaged these earlier containers beyond repair. I was always disappointed with the results.

About six years ago, I learned of a new garbage container offered by Kodiak Products. The Kodiak was advertised as being fully automated with a five-year warranty. Discussing their product with the company, I found that these containers automatically opened when they were dumped, reducing the amount of time required to collect refuse from a collection route. The company offers both 65-gallon and 95-gallon containers. Locally, we are using the 95-gallon models. These are designed to work on semi-automated or fully automated trucks. In other areas, these containers are being used with rear mounted hydraulic tippers.

I acquired two of these containers and placed them in areas where bears had been a constant problem. The homeowners had continually been picking up scattered garbage, even when the old containers had only been exposed for a couple of hours. The homeowners reported that after they put out the new containers, the containers were tipped over, but with no entry. This lasted for six to eight days. After this time, the bears apparently lost interest in that site, and went to another home without the bear-resistant containers.

Since that time, I was able to purchase several hundred Kodiak containers. The refuse company was so impressed with the results, that they have purchased several hundred more containers.

Throughout the years, Kodiak has made several improvements in their original design. There have been three major changes, each one an improvement over the previous model. We are operating all three models here. All have been certified by the ICBC (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee).

The containers from the original purchase are still in use, along with the newer models. We have been operating these containers in temperatures from +90 degrees F to -20 degrees F, with minimal problems. There have been a few latches that have needed replacement. The company has stood by their warranty with the latches being replaced. Latches are simple to replace, with no tools required. At the present time, we are operating 600 Kodiak containers, and have not had an entry into any of these containers in six seasons of use.”

George W. Barce is currently a Wildlife Biologist for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes. In the past, he has worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. He has 50 years of experience in land and wildlife management. He received his B.S. degrees in Forestry & Wildlife Management from the University of Montana and went through the master’s program with CEFES (Continuing Education in Forest Ecology and Silviculture).

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