Should New York City Expand Its Network of Trash-Sucking Vacuum Tubes?

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":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roosevelt_Island#Architecture. Lying beneath their plans was an...

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Jun 19 2012, 4:10pm

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. Lying beneath their plans was an unusual technology: a series of tubes that literally suck garbage from buildings at speeds up to 60 miles per hour to a central collection point, where the trash is taken off the island by truck or barge. Theoretically, that eliminates the emissions and traffic caused by giant garbage trucks, and makes trash sorting easier.

Now, more than thirty years after the “AVAC,” or Automated Vacuum Collection System, was installed, Envac, the Swedish company that built it, is exploring how to upgrade it and even extend the system to other parts of the city. Under a new feasibility study conducted by City University and funded by two city agencies, the easiest option would be to stretch the current system south, to cover the new technology campuses being built on Roosevelt Island by Cornell University and the Technion. Other potential trash tube candidates include the Coney Island boardwalk, in a new housing development there, and near Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan. There, according to Envac’s new proposal, the tubes could ride underneath the infrastructure of the High Line, the hip railway-cum-park that floats along the neighborhood’s increasingly hip river-side edge. "We can retrofit in dense urban areas so we don’t have to rip up the street,” said Rosina Abramson, who cut her teeth on the system as an official on Roosevelt Island and now runs Envac’s U.S. operations.

Envac, which bills itself as “the global market leader in automated vacuum waste collection,” has built around 600 systems in the Middle East, England, Southern Europe and Asia. New systems are currently being built for new residential developments in Helsinki, Qatar, and Quebec. The first urban scale system in the world was installed in Stockholm’s Sundbyberg development in 1966, and its still running today.

The U.S. got its start in trash tubes in 1969. Under a plan that year for new technology called “Operation Breakthrough,” the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed the installation of a pneumatic collection system into a new 500-unit housing project in Jersey City. When it was completed in 1974, the complex, now called Summit Plaza, boasted the first pneumatic collection system for residential refuse in the US. By then, Envac had already constructed a demonstration system in the U.S: in 1971, a similar system began operating at Disney World, where it continues to run. Others would pop up around the globe: Munich Olympic Village in 1972, Parque Central, Caracas in 1973, and Chertanovo, Moscow in 1975.

When Roosevelt Island’s system was finished in 1976, it became the first and only such system to be installed on an urban scale in the U.S. The pneumatic tube system, said Mayor John Lindsay in 1969, "could one day replace garbage cans and household incinerators.”

Disney’s garbage tube system was completed in 1971.

One of the first innovations in garbage disposal arrived in 1938, with American architect John W. Hammes’ garbage disposal, a small grinder that fits under the sink and processes food waste before flushing it into the sewer system. It was in the 1950s when the idea for vacuum collection first emerged. In 1951, the first patent was issued to an American engineer who designed a system for collecting soiled linen, for Eastern Cyclone Industries. But it was up to the Swedes to invent a system for household refuse.

You can practically smell the benefits of turning trash collection over to a giant vacuum. Gone would be garbage trucks, eliminating traffic and noise, and even overflowing trash receptacles could be a thing of the past. While these systems rely on lots of electricity to create enough suction and must inevitably cope with ugly blockages – Christmas trees, exercise equipment, computers, shelving and vacuum cleaners have turned up inside the Roosevelt Island system – they take street emissions out of the trash equation. “There are not odors. No spills. No vermin,” Abramson told Forbes. “It facilitates recycling too, because you drop it in and there it goes.”

In 2010 I asked Juliette Spertus, the curator of an exhibit on the system, whether she thought this was a good idea or the product of Jetsons-era whimsy. She wasn’t so sure.

“Pneumatic collection is not always the answer,” she wrote by email. "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.

A 1976 advertisement for Roosevelt Island’s garbage tube system. See a diagram drawn by middle schoolers here

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 trash tubers come back at the right time, maybe: New York happens to be in the midst of a series of giant underground construction projects, like the extension of the no. 7 line and the 2nd Avenue Subway project. That could make construction of new piping much cheaper and easier than it would otherwise be. And the city’s got plenty of garbage problems.

Then again, the city already has a vibrant and powerful refuse collection industry that might be loathe to cede their pick-up routes to a bunch of Swedish vacuum tubes. “The private carting industry stands to benefit from automated trash collection delivering solid waste and recyclables in compacted separate containers,” reads a statement from Envac about the new feasibility study, which is funded by New York State Energy Research Agency and the New York State Department of Transportation. Even if its organized crime ties have been whittled down, this is not an industry that takes kindly to upgrades.

That’s too bad. One of the more compelling opportunities with a more automated trash system would be the ability to more automatically levy charges on individuals per the amount of garbage they discard. Under a digital pay as you throw scheme, residents in a residential building would only be able to open the doors to receptacles in their area using RFID cards. Costs would be assesed by sensors, which can weigh the garbage, recyclables and compostables. That sounds annoying, but such schemes have already been credited in the U.S. with reducing residential waste increasing recycling. By keeping better track of how we throw out, we might become more responsible trash disposers too. While recycling’s on the rise in the U.S., an estimated 77 percent of the plastic in the U.S. still ends up in overflowing landfills. According to the EPA, the total amount of municipal solid waste in the U.S. grew from 151.6 million tons in 1980 to 249.9 millions tons in 2010.

The control panel for Roosevelt Island’s system (Jonathan Snyder/Wired.com)

But keeping better track of trash and charging for its disposal don’t require a giant pneumatic tube system. And right now, the future of trash tubes in New York remains mostly speculative, less a game-changer than a blast from a paleofuture past when the underground looked ripe for pneumatic tubes for virtually anything. Despite all the beauty of automation, the aging Roosevelt Island network still requires some very dirty manual work. When part of the tube springs a leak, the system’s last resort, as Greg Whitmore’s documentary shows, below, is a small, anonymous Swedish man who must crawl into the trash tube and repair it with glue.

“Nature Abhors a Vacuum,” Greg Whitmore’s short documentary on Roosevelt Island’s trash system.
Photos by Jonathan Snyder/Wired.com