Should We Replace Garbage Trucks With Vacuum Tubes?


Trash is one of those few things in our world no one wants to see, smell, touch or even think about. Think about it.

Planners of Roosevelt Island did. The faded-utopian village, located in New York's East River, was once a haven for miscreants, the disabled and the ill. In the 60s and 70s, a major effort was made to make it a liveable place. Its ambitious planners installed what may be the world's most unusual garbage collection system: a series of tubes that literally suck garbage from buildings to a central collection point. Aside from a system at Disney World, it's the only one of it's kind in the U.S. It looks like the future of trash collection -- or a strange sci-fi side note.

A fascinating exhibit on the system, Fast Trash runs until this Sunday on the island. After a visit recently, dreams of the trash futures danced in my head. And for the show's curator, Juliette Spertus, I had one burning question.Treehugger: Juliette, if the Mayor asked you if a system like the island's AVAC (Automated Vacuum Collection System) should be deployed in a new housing development -- or in some other area comparable to Roosevelt Island -- would you recommend it? Basically, after spending lots of time with the system and thinking about it a lot, do you think it's a good idea?

Juliette Spertus:
Context is important. Pneumatic collection offers a lot of advantages for dense urban environments, namely: reduced congestion, noise and emissions from trucks; pests; improved working conditions for building and sanitation employees; improving and expanding source separation of waste; reduction in the amount of space needed for storing and removing waste inside and outside buildings; and finally, since pneumatic transfer stations only process waste generated within their network they invite expanded community responsibility and control.

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.

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.

Lots of questions remain of course, but Juliette's is a valuable takeaway: whether systems like this are better or not depends upon context, as always, and lessons can be drawn not just from Roosevelt Island but from Europe and Asia as well. But most of all, these futuristic systems nudge us to begin thinking more about garbage and urban space, and perhaps urge us to dig up better possibilities for addressing them than currently exist.

For more on the system, see this video overview and interview by Rocket Boom:

Read a great interview with Juliette at Urban Omnibus, see Lloyd's endorsement of the idea, learn more about Envac, the Swedish company behind the system, read more about the system at Wikipedia and learn about the US's only other such system, at Disney World.

And check out Fast Trash before it gets sucked away overseas, or to the exhibition dump. There's a musical performance (!) about the system this Saturday and a walking tour this Sunday, May 23rd, the last day of the exhibit.

Should We Replace Garbage Trucks With Vacuum Tubes?
Trash is one of those few things in our world no one wants to see, smell, touch or even think about. Think about it.

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