“Glad Bags!” was the refrain last Tuesday evening at a Studio-X panel on the subject of pneumatic trash collection (i.e. waste removal via vacuum tube) in New York City. Benjamin Miller, an expert on the history of garbage in the city, introduced the phrase, identifying what he regards as the first and only major innovation to have been systematically implemented in almost 150 years of trash collection. When the plastic, disposable garbage bags were first widely introduced for residential use in the mid-1970s, they revolutionized an inefficient and unsanitary garbage removal strategy involving ash cans and trucks. In the past 35 years we’ve ditched those bins, but still rely heavily on the trucks, which is precisely the problem as Miller and the rest of the panelists see it. The city’s current waste management system uses a fleet of 23-ton vehicles whose combined daily travel is roughly equivalent to 192 trips from New York to Los Angeles.
In addition to Miller, who is the author of Fat of the Land: The Garbage Of New York—The Last Two Hundred Years, speakers on the panel included: Juliette Spertus, an architect and curator of “Fast Trash,” an exhibition about the automated vacuum collection system (AVAC) currently used on Roosevelt Island [featured on UO and visited in an Omnibus field trip in 2010 – Ed.]; Vishaan Chakrabarti, Professor of Real Estate at Columbia University and former senior adviser to the Office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Planning Commission; Claire Weisz, founding partner of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the firm working on the design for the city’s new Hugo Neu Marine Terminal Recycling Facility; and Marcia Bystryn, the President of the New York League of Conservation Voters and former Assistant Commissioner for Recycling, NYC Department of Sanitation.
All were in agreement about the urgent need for a new moment of Glad Bag-type innovation in New York City waste management: escalating fuel costs have made this already extremely ecologically costly process increasingly economically expensive. Will trash tubes drive the conversation around garbage collection in the future? Miller certainly believes so—“we have pipes for people, pipes for power, pipes for sewage…why not pipes for trash?” he asked. Since Spertus and Miller were reporting the preliminary results of a government funded feasibility study for a pilot project along the High Line, the question was not in the least rhetorical.
The basic idea of the pilot project is to build a compacting facility on top of the redeveloping Hudson Yards, which would be the terminus for a 20-block transport tube running beneath the elevated park. The system could easily pick up trash for the park and many, if not all, of the surrounding buildings along its route, including Chelsea Market, which alone produces almost 10 tons of garbage a day. With the existing infrastructure of the elevated rail already in place, the cost of retrofitting would be relatively inexpensive, especially compared to a much larger system successfully introduced in Barcelona, where subterranean channels had to navigate ancient Roman ruins.
There are several key benefits to this idea. AVAC doesn’t just mean fewer trucks on the street; it also greatly improves the city’s ability to sort its solid waste and recyclables efficiently. Claire Weisz explained how the capacity for organics composting, a process notoriously difficult in a dense urban environment like Manhattan, becomes attainable using AVAC. Of course, both high-volume composting and modern incineration processes have the potential to produce a great deal of energy — “the commodification of waste,” an idea that Vishaan Chakrabarti found particularly compelling. Regulation is also improved — Marcia Bystryn was especially supportive of the idea of being able to monitor more comprehensively how and when trash is introduced to the system for collection. This would make possible a “pay as you throw” model, charging businesses and residents for their non-usable, recyclable, or compostable waste. To these panelists, tube collection doesn’t just mean a new way to pick up trash, but a mechanism for changing what and how much we send to the landfill.
What are the obstacles to retrofitting New York City for AVAC? The greatest is also the most obvious in our current climate of austerity: the upfront cost to New York City taxpayers. The average New Yorker, Chakrabarti warned, is not thinking about the monetary tradeoff: the potential economic boon of eliminating the trucks, and unlocking the facilities and square footage occupied by the current system of waste management. To many, it looks like a “big expensive project” and lost jobs for sanitation workers. Secondarily, we are a city that has lost confidence in the possibility of surmounting private developers and governmental bureaucracies to implement large systemic improvements.
But in the end, Miller is optimistic for the future of pneumatic trash collection in the city, especially since he understands the infrastructure as “inherently modular.” Implementing AVAC does not require an overhaul of the entire system, but rather can and should occur incrementally. He and Spertus are confident that both public and private interests would be able to understand the advantages of the system were there a successful model developed and put to use on the island. Of the proposed pilot project for Manhattan’s west side, Miller remarked, “The tubes should be clear. I want [New Yorkers] to see the garbage.” Literal transparency would serve to add a public awareness component to the infrastructural innovation. In other words, “It’s Glad Bags.”
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.