Below the High Line: How pneumatic tubes could alter the future of urban waste collection
ClosedLoops has a vision for decentralizing waste processing, cutting out trucks and creating renewable energy.
One planning firm in New York thinks it may have found the secret to urban waste management in the U.S. — fewer trucks and more hyperlocal coordination.
ClosedLoops has been working for years to bring a combination of pneumatic waste collection, small-scale anaerobic digestion and rail transfer to the High Line park corridor on the west side of Manhattan. While those efforts are gaining momentum by the day, and the necessary technology can already be found from Seattle to Singapore, the level of coordination required to implement their plans will be uniquely complex.
Though if ClosedLoops can bring its waste collection concept to fruition, it will make the High Line one of the few areas in New York that doesn't sprout mounds of garbage bags along the curb every day.
"This notion of eliminating bags on the street by having agglomerated waste collection in specific areas could just really open up all sorts of possibilities," said Ben Miller, co-founder of ClosedLoops and a former policy director for the Department of Sanitation (DSNY).
The High Line project would have the capacity to transport up to 30 tons of material per day through 1.5 miles of pneumatic tubing hung underneath the elevated park using a vacuum collection system. Waste, recyclables and organic material could all be handled by one tube at separate times, with the potential for tracking residential use at terminals through some form of pay-as-you-throw system that is currently being explored by DSNY.
It's possible that tubes could even be directly connected to commercial kitchens, such as the ones at the Chelsea Market food hall, to take pre-consumer organic material to a small anaerobic digester in an adjacent building. Everything else would be sucked to the northern end of the pipeline and extricated from the island via an underground rail terminal. Residential organics and recyclables could head to Brooklyn for co-digestion at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and sorting at the Sims Municipal Recycling facility respectively. Refuse could be taken to landfills in upstate New York or beyond.
While all of this may sound a little utopian, the potential savings in labor, fuel, emissions and space are very attractive for a city such as New York with a growing population and an ambitious goal of "zero waste" by 2030. Now, the hard part is convincing the many stakeholders involved that it can be done.
Getting stakeholders on board
"Developers have to take a leap of faith that this will work," said ClosedLoops co-founder, architect and curator Juliette Spertus. "I don’t think that it would take much to change that."
After documenting the history of New York’s only other pneumatic waste collection system in a 2010 exhibit called “Fast Trash,” Spertus is well-acquainted with the logistical factors involved. Roosevelt Island, located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, has the unique distinction of being the largest residential complex to use this system in the U.S.
"Developers have to take a leap of faith that this will work."
When the planned community was originally conceived during the 1960s New York’s sanitation system was in bad shape. The DSNY fleet was in disrepair, a labor strike paralyzed collections for more than a week and a couple years later residents in one Brooklyn neighborhood were so mad at the poor service they set their trash piles on fire. As the developers behind Roosevelt Island planned for a car-free community they decided that pneumatic tubes could eliminate these problems.
"You'll hardly see it. You won't hear it. But you'll be very glad it's there," promised a brochure from the development’s opening year in 1975.
More than 40 years later, the system continues to operate smoothly and proved its resilience when Roosevelt Island was the only community that DSNY could collect from during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Yet aside from Disney World, and smaller systems in New Jersey and Indiana, Spertus says the appetite for new projects of this kind has been nearly nonexistent in North America.
"It requires a lot of political will," said Spertus. "It’s not a technological issue at all. This is simple technology. It’s very straightforward compared to many other things that cities are building."
The technology’s potential is well-proven in many other countries. Originally debuted on an urban scale in Sweden during the 1960s, pneumatic waste collection has since expanded to cities in Finland, Denmark, Spain, France, the U.K., South Korea, China, Qatar and elsewhere. Yet even though material is currently whooshing through scores of pneumatic systems they still haven't gained a prominent position in modern waste management planning.
Albert Mateu, chairman of the International Pneumatic Waste Collection Association (IPWCA) and a partner on the High Line project, noted this may be because the technology is still not very well-known. Mateu helped launch the IPWCA in January 2016 and the group recently made its first presentation to the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona last fall. During his career Mateu has worked on more than 50 automatic waste collection projects around the world, including the massive undertaking required to bring the system to Barcelona.
Spurred by the success of pneumatic collection at its Olympic Village in 1992, Barcelona later established a requirement in 2002 for all new developments to include the systems and soon began working to expand the infrastructure throughout multiple neighborhoods in the city. Today, residents in these areas either have access in their buildings or can walk right outside to terminals on the street.
The Barcelona project was challenging due to the costs and logistics involved with digging up city streets — in some cases unearthing Roman ruins along the way — but Mateu said recent advances have made pneumatic systems much easier to install. For example, new composite plastic tubing is now available. The High Line project could be the first to use this tubing in the U.S.
Mateu estimates that on average it costs about $1,500 per housing unit to install a pneumatic system, depending on the logistical factors involved, but said that since these systems are built to last for at least 30 years until upgrades are required they easily pay for themselves over time. His goal for the IPWCA is to help encourage faster expansion of new systems in the coming decade, and he sees the High Line as a special opportunity to show a new way that can be done.
“This is quite unique that it brings a second life to the High Line,” Mateu said. “It’s not underground. It’s in the sky."
Cutting down on truck traffic and emissions
The High Line project proposal has attracted significant interest for the potential to install tubes more easily than usual, but also because it could cut down on truck traffic and create energy for local use.
This holistic approach has helped the ClosedLoops team attract multiple rounds of funding from various partners since they received their first grant in 2011. Their latest funding, which runs through the fall, comes from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and state Department of Transportation. Both agencies have been active participants in the research process and are intrigued enough by the prospects that this was their second round of funding.
"Garbage trucks are a prime target because there’s a lot of them, they move very slowly, they run on fossil fuels and they tie up traffic," said Joseph Tario, a senior project manager at NYSERDA specializing in transportation. "They just congest the whole system."
Tario said that cutting down on traffic created by collection trucks, delivery trucks or any other types is a key priority for the state’s long-term emissions reduction goals. NYSERDA is also a proponent of developing renewable energy capacity and recently released a report highlighting the economic potential of diverting food waste to anaerobic digestion facilities in the state. While a statewide commercial organics diversion policy is still being developed the city’s policy has already gone into effect.
"Garbage trucks are a prime target because there’s a lot of them, they move very slowly, they run on fossil fuels and they tie up traffic ... They just congest the whole system."
Senior project manager, NYSERDA
A recent report from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability on how the city can achieve its goal of reducing emissions 80% by 2050 further highlighted the benefits of this approach. While collections from DSNY and commercial trucks were found to play a role — about 0.13% of all city emissions — the resulting methane from sending waste to landfills was found to be a much larger factor. The report went on to cover the benefits of anaerobic digestion, as well as pneumatic waste collection, and outlined steps toward the city’s goal of "zero waste" by 2030.
As more cities and companies look at diverting new waste streams, particularly organics, the potential for extra emissions or half-full trucks is something to be wary of. By bringing a small digester into the mix the High Line project could help close the resource recovery loop on a much more local level than most urban waste management systems can due to siting constraints. The team envisions a unit that could process 10,000 pounds of material per day — while producing more than enough energy and heat to run the pneumatic system — and is working with Seattle-based Impact Bioenergy to explore these possibilities.
Taking steps toward execution
Even with all of this excitement, ClosedLoops fully acknowledges that lots of work and at least a couple years remain until this entire concept could be realized. Property easements will be needed. A business entity to manage the organization and billing for this system must be set up. Firm agreements with the High Line and enough properties in its vicinity will be needed to guarantee space for the tubing and material to go through it. Discussions will need to be had about what it means to divert this material away from the people that currently collect it, both DSNY and private haulers, and where it will go. A call for bids will need to be put out to build and manage the system itself.
Though if everything goes according to plan, ClosedLoops believes that some part of this plan could start happening as early as next year.
The benefits of shared "buffer tanks," such as roll-off containers or a compactor, have already been proven at residential complexes in the city such as Battery Park City and Peter Cooper Village. Rather than piling up bags on the street — the High Line alone generates an estimated 35,000 bags per year — building staff could roll them to shared tanks for a block or a neighborhood. Eventually these tanks would be hooked up to a pneumatic system, but in the meantime they would still help save space, cut down on labor hours and reduce truck traffic.
"That would be great a environmental, economic, public health and quality of life advantage. And that sort of thing could be done across the city relatively easy and quickly compared to installing pneumatic systems," said Miller.
The micro-digester could come next. While it would require more financing, the installation would be relatively simple. This concept could also be replicated in other industrial spaces throughout the city and is an area that multiple organics processing companies are currently interested in.
From there, the pneumatic system could be installed and connected to the buffer tanks and digester. If needed, it could also be serviced by trucks until the rail transfer element was complete. ClosedLoops believes it would be feasible to add at least one more tube and double the system’s capacity to 60 tons per day. Once the adjacent Hudson Yards mega-development, which will also include pneumatic collection in some buildings, is complete they could potentially share the rail terminal as well.
In later years, Miller sees the potential for similar 1.5 mile pneumatic networks to be built throughout the city without the type of expensive and laborious tunneling that other systems have required in the past. They could run along existing transportation infrastructure or any other type of raised structure. Some day the city could even follow Barcelona’s model by requiring new construction projects to hook up to this existing system like sewer or electrical lines.
And as for reaction from the waste industry, Mateu said that companies in Barcelona eventually came around to the idea. Three of the largest firms in Spain now hold contracts to operate the city’s system. When considering the future of waste collection he urged people to think bigger than the latest "smart" solutions such as bin sensors and data-optimized routing by posing a simple question.
"What’s the alternative to pneumatic waste collection?" he asked. "Trucks and bins."
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