Are pneumatic garbage systems the future of waste disposal?

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A lot of us assume that the use of pneumatics is reserved for the manufacturing and engineering industries. When you think of the Jetson style tube systems of the early 1900s, shooting memos around a complicated system to pass a message within an office, you imagine the technology became obsolete for a reason. A recent upsurge in the use of pneumatic tube systems for waste disposal however, would indicate otherwise. The technology for underground waste disposal has been around since the 1960s and is used in some major cities already including London, Barcelona and Stockholm. With the problem of hygienic disposal of increasing amounts of waste becoming more pressing day by day, a lot of local governments are considering making the move to a pneumatic underground solution. Indeed, after observing successful models around the world the arguments become more persuasive. Roosevelt Island, in NYC, is just one of these successful models.


Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island Garbage in Pneumatic TubesYou can view Roosevelt’s waste system as a quaint anachronism or a blue print for future waste disposal logistics. The island is a narrow sliver which sits in the East River of New York, in parallel to Central Park. The city bought the island in 1828 off the wealthy Blackwell family with the plan to erect prisons, asylums and hospitals there. By 1921, when the island had been renamed “Welfare Island”, many of the prisoners had been moved on and, in time, the asylum hospital and other hospitals became abandoned leaving the island somewhat defunct. In 1969 the city granted the New York State Urban Development Corporation a 99 year lease to redevelop the island. The result was a vision of a residential community for 20,000 New Yorker’s, which would be car free and therefore would not be able to cater for rubbish trucks, hence the invention of the pneumatic waste system.

Today, the 16 residential towers on the island feed the entire island’s waste into the system.


How it works

Residents put waste into outdoor and indoor units; each unit takes a certain kind of waste (organic, mixed or paper). The waste is then passed down into the valve room. The valve room controls the flow of waste using a pneumatic linear actuator which can be electronically switched on or off by operators in the control room. The waste then passes through 20 inch tubes, sucked by a vacuum at a speed of 30mph -60mph before reaching a compactor, where the waste is compacted down to be taken off the island. It’s considered to be quite simple and elegant system, although currently requires a considerable amount of upkeep since it was first designed in the 70s.


A Viable Future?

Although there are several major advantages when it comes to the Roosevelt waste disposal system, there are frequent problems along the way, but these may be as much to do with the old design of the system as anything else. When residents put large or sharp objects down the chute, for example, breakages and tears can occur. Imagine a speeding vacuum cleaner heading towards a bend in the chute at 30mph and you get the idea. On Roosevelt Island then, Swedish engineers (as the original system was designed by a Swedish company) are frequently called in to repair tears and remove blocks, which either results in the entire system being down for an amount of time, or a game of dodging the incoming traffic for the engineers. That being said, recent developments in the industry and designs which take into account the problems of the Roosevelt system could result in much more efficient and less problematic product.

The main advantages of the pneumatic waste system are monetary and environmental. Less staff are needed to man the system compared to the numbers needed to collect waste using trucks, which saves money on wages. Likewise, vehicle expense including fuel, maintenance and purchasing the vehicles themselves is completely eradicated.

On top of this, the carbon emissions from vehicle use are no longer a problem, meaning a healthier environment for residents; garage trucks no longer interfere with general traffic; streets are considered more aesthetically pleasing without bins lining the pavements and the risk of accidents caused by trucks is eradicated. Overall then, a pneumatic waste disposal system is regarded as safer, cheaper and better for the environment.

This is why a lot of states and cities are considering installing these kinds of systems. Finland is currently planning to introduce this technology in Helsinki and other areas throughout the country, and New York recently funded preliminary research into the viability of rolling out the Roosevelt Island system in other areas of the city.

Overall it seems that although the initial start up costs of installing such a system would be high, and the engineering work could have quite an impact on a city, the efficiency, sustainability and cost-effectiveness of a pneumatic tube system could make it a smart way to go, although the majority of bin men would probably tell you otherwise.

What do you think? Leave a comment!