Vacuum waste: A tech whose time has finally come

SideWalkTalk article on Medium

While vacuum waste collection is still rare compared to curbside pickup, its adoption may be on the rise. Norway’s second-largest city, Bergen, is installing one of the world’s largest vacuum waste systems, with nearly 5 miles of underground pipe. In 2018, Singapore changed its development requirements so any project of 500 apartments or more must collect waste and recycling via vacuum tubes, and gave itself the authority to designate whole districts as pneumatic waste collection zones.

North America remains a laggard, but some promising projects are underway. In New York, Benjamin Miller and Juliette Spertus have teamed up to create Closed Loops, an organization whose objective is to bring pneumatic waste collection to the city. The two met while working together on a pneumatic waste collection research project at the City University of New York. “We’ve been working together ever since, trying to catalyze these kinds of projects,” says Spertus.

Their first target is not a large-scale redevelopment but the city’s famed High Line Park and its adjacent buildings. Their proposal for the High Line district involves a clever maneuver: suspending the pneumatic trunk line above ground, in the rafters beneath the High Line’s raised platform.

Typically, installing pneumatic systems in older urban districts can be a more expensive proposition than a new, large-scale redevelopment, since it requires retrofitting existing underground infrastructure to accommodate the vacuum tubes — a challenge that the Closed Loops proposal elegantly skirts. Their proposed High Line system would also include a separate stream composed exclusively of organic kitchen waste from nearby restaurants, which would be transported to a nearby anaerobic digester, where it would be turned into biogas and fertilizer.

The proposal has widespread support from all levels of government, as well as building owners and major corporations along the High Line corridor. “It’s not shovel ready, but it’s close,” says Miller. If all goes well, the project could get the green light in 2021 — potentially paving the way for other pneumatic projects to follow, in New York and beyond. Pneumatic trunk lines could run beneath any city’s elevated expressways or rail corridors, or even in its subway tunnels, not to mention any neighborhood-scale developments.

“The High Line is a very visible and well-known location that would make a great pilot,” says Miller, “but there’s lots more low-hanging fruit we could pick.”