Oct 29, 2020 - Economy & Business

Sending garbage underground by pneumatic tube

Schematic drawing of Envac's waste management system, which uses pneumatic tubes and air vacuums
Envac's automated vacuum collection system. Source: Envac

Trash systems that use vacuum suction and pneumatic tubes to whoosh garbage from people's homes and sidewalk bins have been around for decades, but are gaining new traction in the U.S.

Why it matters: These systems — which currently serve Disney World and Manhattan's Roosevelt Island — get municipal garbage trucks off the streets and offer a cleaner and more environmentally friendly waste removal.

Driving the news: The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is soliciting plans from vendors to build a vacuum-tube-based underground garbage system for Polo Grounds Towers, a 4,000-resident complex in Harlem.

  • A contract is expected to be awarded next summer, and the new system would likely be the first in the U.S. to include recycling.
  • The project "could have a huge impact on plans for private development," Juliette Spertus, an urban designer with NYCHA, tells Axios.
  • The owners of Hudson Yards, a private residential and commercial development on Manhattan's West Side, have signaled interest in building one as well.
  • And a group called Closed Loops LLC wants to build one under Manhattan's High Line in Chelsea.

How it works: Pedestrians or residents place trash in chutes in their homes or where outdoor garbage baskets would normally be. A stream of air sucks the refuse down to subterranean pipes, where it's forced by vacuum pressure to a central collection station.

  • From there, the waste is compacted and sent to permanent disposal sites like landfills.
  • Larger items like sofas, heavy cardboard boxes or computer monitors don't go through pneumatic tubes — they get placed in discrete collection areas, where they're also removed.
  • No municipal garbage trucks are involved, and overflowing trash bins are a thing of the past, companies like Envac and a newer rival, MariMatic, tell me.
  • If someone drops something large, heavy or otherwise naughty into the system, on-site maintenance workers are there to shut down a pneumatic tube, remove the offending object, and get things restarted.

Other advantages: The areas in an apartment complex or public space that would normally be dedicated to trash management can be freed up for other uses — like bike rooms.

  • "In hundreds of years, waste collection hasn’t changed," says Joakim Karlsson, CEO of Envac, the Stockholm-based company that invented pneumatic waste collection systems in the 1950s and installed the Disney World and Roosevelt Island systems in the 1970s.
  • "Our vision is that pneumatic systems should become as natural a part of a city’s natural infrastructure as water, electricity or sewage," he tells Axios.
  • Today, the vast majority of these systems are outside the U.S. — primarily in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The intrigue: Companies have emerged as competitors to Envac that say they have more modern technology that's better suited to recycling.

  • MariMatic, which is based in Finland, uses plastic pipes that are smaller in diameter than Envac's steel pipes.
  • This equates to lower energy consumption, Albert Mateu of MariMatic tells Axios.
  • Pneumatic tube-based systems are growing "more and more popular around the world," Mateu says, but they're a tougher sell in the United States.
  • Benjamin Miller of ClosedLoops, which wants to build a system for the High Line, says that's largely because the capital expenditure of such a system is mostly upfront — and expensive — versus the cost of replacing a garbage truck every seven years.

The bottom line: "This is an important part of building a smart and sustainable city," says Karlsson. "If you had to build a new world, would you choose garbage trucks? I don’t think so."

Go deeper