Pipe dream, or future of NYC trash removal?

Diagram of a pneumatic trash collection system

The City of New York sifts through 11,000 tons of trash per day along with 2,000 tons of recyclables. That’s a remarkable amount of garbage, but even more amazing is managing to find ways to efficiently deal with all this waste. Could a pneumatic pipe collection system work?


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It’s like a giant, trash-sucking vacuum

The pneumatic piping system idea works something like this:

Trash is literally sucked through a complicated web of underground pipes like a vacuum. These pipes would run from city streets and buildings (the drop off points) to area waste facilities. The technology itself is nothing new, and the city already has quite a large underground infrastructure in place to install the pipes.

Underground tunnel system in NYC
Massive underground tunnel system in New York City. Source: Wired

A pneumatic pipe waste collection system would remove sanitation trucks from the roads and save the city quite a bit of money, although much of that money would go right back into maintaining the new collection system. New York City spends about $1.6 billion per year on garbage collection and disposal.

Presumably, an underground pneumatic waste collection system would also reduce the stench of rotting trash and number of rats on city streets.

University study supports the idea

City College of New York’s University of Transportation Research Center (UTRC) has studied this whole idea for the past three years. Its findings, published in a 2013 report, found the running costs of a pneumatic system would be 30% less than the current garbage collection system, although the upfront costs of integrating such as system within the city’s current infrastructure would be substantial.

AVAC pneumatic waste collection system

The report also noted a 60% reduction in energy and more than 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions with the pneumatic trash collection system.

It’s already being used on Roosevelt Island

It’s called Automated Vacuum Assisted Collection, or AVAC. It’s a series of 20-inch wide pipes strategically placed around town to collect trash. The system has been used on the island since the ‘70s.

Trash zooms through the pipes at around 30 mph and eventually reaches the sorting facility where it is compacted, placed in containers and then shipped to a transfer station.

Problems arise from time to time, mainly jams in the pipes, but these problems are easily fixed with a little manual poking and prodding by workers using a modified drain auger.

Since it was launched more than 40 years ago, the AVAC system has experienced very little downtime; an incident involving thousands of phone books mixed with water caused a nearly two-week shutdown several years ago (see video), but other than that, it’s been relatively smooth sailing.

The aging AVAC system on Roosevelt Island is more than overdue for upgrades. For instance, it cannot separate recyclables from general trash; it all gets mixed together and sent to the transfer station. The technology to separate valuable recyclables from household trash is out there, but it’s a cost-prohibitive issue right now for the folks on Roosevelt Island.

NYC waste removal going forward

If NYC were to implement a pneumatic waste collection system, there’s no doubt it would be state-of-the-art and the best in the world (pneumatic trash systems are currently being used in more than 30 countries).

Pneumatic trash collection in London
Pneumatic trash receptacles in Wembley New City, London, United Kingdom. Source; Envac

The team of researchers at UTRC estimate that an AVAC-type system could be realistically put into place in Manhattan in the next 50 to 100 years. However, the team also mentioned that it wouldn’t be surprised to see testing of such a system far sooner than that, possibly this decade.

The idea that one of the world’s biggest cities could essentially eliminate trashcans, piles of trash and commercial dumpsters from curbsides all around the city is an enticing endeavor. Viable? It seems to be, although it would take quite a bit of startup money to make it happen. It would also be, by far, the most extensive piping system of its kind.

It’s something that’s definitely worth looking into because it could help clean up the streets of New York. That said, it’s such a huge undertaking to get a system like this up and running that it may prove to be not worth the time and effort. If anyone can do it, though, the great people of NYC can get it done!

Via: Gizmodo