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Inside New York's Bizarre, Giant Vacuum Tube Garbage Collection System

When urban planners were trying to turn New York's Roosevelt Island from a haven for the disabled and the mentally ill into a liveable city, they got "utopian": Underneath their plans: the...
May 24, 2010, 3:06pm

When urban planners were trying to turn New York’s Roosevelt Island from a haven for the disabled and the mentally ill into a liveable city, they got utopian. Underneath their plans: the world’s most unusual garbage collection system, a series of tubes that literally suck garbage from buildings to a central collection point. There’s a system at Disney World and a few scattered around Europe and Asia, but this is the only one of it’s kind in the U.S.

Last week, I asked the curator of a recent exhibit on the system whether she thought this was a good idea or the product of Jetsons-era whimsy.

Pneumatic collection is not always the answer. It is not cost effective in low density areas. Even in areas that use pneumatic systems, not everything is collected through the tubes. Bulk wastes: appliances, furniture, etc. can’t be fed into a tube the way they are fed into the back of a garbage truck. And there is the issue of how much to include. For example, Barcelona chose only organics and refuse. Recyclables are less volatile and pick ups are less frequent so the city decided to continue collecting them by truck. These decisions tend to have more to do with local waste management policy than technical parameters.

There’s a lesson to be learned however just by thinking about garbage tubes.

However even the major disadvantages, start up cost and administrative complexity (where should the pipes go and who is responsible for them), are opportunities to bring service infrastructure into the design discussion and raise important questions about public space. This is what drew me in. To install a pneumatic system, or any alternative to trucks, a municipality or developer has to quantify the real cost of the current strategy, weigh the benefits, and project into the future. This seems like an invaluable exercise no matter what the outcome is. I think that developers and municipalities are remiss if they do not explore pneumatic collection anytime they are putting in new underground infrastructure.

The exhibit’s over, but fortunately Tess Taylor wrote about the system a few years ago in the New Yorker, and last year, Greg Whitmore made this lyrical documentary on the system, “Nature Abhors a Vacuum.” Meet the residents who love it, the small team of engineers that makes it run, and the small, anonymous Swedish man who has to crawl thorough to repair holes.

Originally published on May 24, 2010.

h/t to me @ Treehugger