Public Works: Sucking Garbage
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Public Works: Sucking Garbage

A vacuum-powered waste management system would cut costs and be good for the environment. Is it right for Toronto?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

A concept drawing of Envac's vacuum waste system. Courtesy of Envac.

A concept drawing of Envac’s vacuum waste system. Courtesy of Envac.

The year 2014 is shaping up to be the year Toronto talks garbage. Mayor Rob Ford and Coucillor (and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Chairman) Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) have each called for reports on fully privatizing Toronto waste collection, which Ford has already pegged as an election issue. The City’s waste management budget for this year is nearly $350 million, which is roughly the same as in 2013, and slightly more than in 2012, but carries with it a three-per-cent hike in residential garbage collection fees. Before we get too down on Toronto, though, remember that garbage is a problem for many big cities. In fact, more and more of those cities are looking at new means of collecting and transporting waste. Sanitation experts in New York City, for instance, are taking a good long look at Envac, a Swedish company that installs and operates vacuum-powered waste collection and management systems.

Anything to do with suction tube travel sounds distinctly futuristic, but Envac has been doing its vacuum waste collection thing since the 1960s, when pneumatic tubes were an exciting and beloved means of transporting inanimate objects (or so we’ve been led to understand). Today, Envac has its vacuum systems installed in a residential development on Roosevelt Island, New York; a catering company at Pearson Airport; Montreal’s “Quartier Des Spectacles”; Disney World; and dozens more public, commercial, and residential areas around the world.

It works thusly: you throw your garbage into an “inlet,” Envac’s version of a trash can, customizable to suit its urban setting, and divided into distinct categories of waste (paper, plastic, organic material, and so on). Each inlet is monitored by a control system housed in a remote terminal. When the control system senses an inlet is full, it starts up a fan-powered vacuum system, and the waste is sucked down into a network of underground pipes, all the way to a central collection station. There, it is automatically sorted according to type of waste, and compressed for transportation to a landfill, recycling plant, or other location.

A row of Envac wast "inlets" in Madrid. Courtesy of Envac.

A row of Envac waste “inlets” in Madrid. Courtesy of Envac.

The advantages are obvious, even if you haven’t read Envac’s very enthusiastic, somewhat pidginized, promotional materials, or the feasibility study by the City University of New York. For starters, vacuum-powered waste transport makes garbage trucks and curb-side collection obsolete, saving the taxpayer money and saving the environment from all the carbon emissions created by hundreds of trucks driving around full of weighty garbage. The automatic-emptying receptacles replace the behemoth municipal garbage cans and industrial dumpsters, freeing up public space for some nobler use.  And the quick turnover of waste means no more overflowing garbage cans, with litter piled around them.

Now, all that wondrousness aside, let’s call a fig a fig here. Envac is not a solution to all our waste problems. It will not help us find an alternative to our growing landfills, and its recycling method is really only as effective as the people deciding whether to place their coffee cup in the “paper” or “plastic” inlet. But efficient waste collection is a prospect too valuable to ignore, especially in Toronto, and very much especially in a Toronto looking toward an election.

Remember the 2009 municipal workers strike, which left the city with bulging trash cans and garbage pile–strewn alleyways, effectively doomed David Miller’s mayoralty, and laid the track for Rob Ford to ride into office on a union-hating, gravy-burning steam engine? Yeah, that wasn’t great.